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Confession of the Lioness


Confession of the Lioness

written by Mia Couto, translated by David Brookshaw

Say what you will about literary awards, but at least they draw attention to authors and books with which you may have been unfamiliar. Among the 10 nominees for this year’s Man Booker International Prize, which until now has been awarded every two years to honor an author published in English, was the Mozambique writer Mia Couto. (Last week, the Man Group announced that the prize would become an annual award, recognize individual books rather than a body of work, and give half the prize money to the books’ translators.) It’s probably safe to say that few Western readers have heard of Couto or know that he is one of the most respected African authors at work today. But that’s likely to change with the publication of his magnificent new novel, CONFESSION OF THE LIONESS.

The book for which Couto is most famous is 1992’s SLEEPWALKING LAND. In it, Muidinga, a boy who can’t see his shadow because of an illness he contracted after eating sour mandioca (cassava), searches the African countryside for his parents with the help of an old man named Tuahir. They stumble upon a notebook by a boy named Kindzu, in which he relates tales of naparamas (traditional warriors blessed by witch doctors) and xipocos (ghosts that derive joy from a person’s suffering) while chronicling events from Mozambique’s 15-year civil war, which began in 1977. Couto splits the narrative between Kindzu’s adventures and Muidinga and Tuahir’s nights in a burnt-out bus to create a compelling, magical-realist tale of the birth of modern Mozambique.

"The wonder of this book is that it is a thrilling adventure tale that is also a trenchant commentary on the repressive treatment of women in post-colonial Mozambique."

In CONFESSION OF THE LIONESS, Couto again uses a dual-narrative technique and magical realism to comment on present-day Mozambique and its political environment. The story takes place in the village of Kulumani. Lions have been attacking and killing the women of the village. One of the hardest hit families is the Mpepe clan. Three of their four daughters have been killed. Only 32-year-old Mariamar, the eldest, is still alive.

The village elders realize they need to stop the attacks before all the women of Kulumani are dead. They put out word that they need a hunter to come to their village to vanquish the lions. A newspaper in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, runs a contest to determine who will go to Kulumani. The winner is Archangel (Archie) Bullseye, a celebrated hunter who comes from a family of hunters. He is happy to have won but says that this will be his last expedition.

Archie is no stranger to Kulumani. Sixteen years earlier, when Mariamar was 16, he came to the village on his motorbike to kill a savage crocodile. While he was there, he saved Mariamar from the advances of a lewd policeman named Maliqueto. She fell in love with Archie, but he left Kulumani a few days later, and she hasn’t seen him since.

Couto shifts the narrative back and forth between Mariamar’s and Archie’s perspectives. This brilliant technique allows us to see all facets of the conflict. We learn that Archie not only harbored feelings for Mariamar during his earlier visit but also is now in love with Luzilia, the nurse who cares for his brother, Roland, who has been institutionalized since he shot their father years earlier in what is believed to be an accidental killing. And Mariamar, thought by many in the village to be mad, sees visions --- the silhouette of her sister Silência, the lastto be killed, appears while Mariamar is plucking chickens in the henhouse --- and suspects that spiritual forces such as the vantumi va vanu (lion-people) may be the true cause of Kulumani’s problems.

CONFESSION OF THE LIONESS has a hypnotic effect on the reader. The prose is spare and mesmerizing --- David Brookshaw translated from the Portuguese, as he did with SLEEPWALKING LAND --- and Couto builds tension beautifully through the gradual dissemination of information. The wonder of this book is that it is a thrilling adventure tale that is also a trenchant commentary on the repressive treatment of women in post-colonial Mozambique. When the wife of a district administrator barges into a meeting from which women are excluded, she yells, “Do you know why they don’t allow women to speak? Because they’re already dead.” The implication in this marvelous novel is that Kulumani, and perhaps much of Mozambique, prefers its women to remain unseen, like Muidinga’s shadow.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on July 17, 2015

Confession of the Lioness
written by Mia Couto, translated by David Brookshaw

  • Publication Date: October 11, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250097266
  • ISBN-13: 9781250097262