‘A Confissão da Leoa’ (‘Confession of the Lioness’) by Mia Couto

My rating: 4 stars

Mia Couto is an author who, after reading only one book by, I became immensely interested in. A Confissão da Leoa, Confession of the Lioness in the English translation, was my second foray into his work and I was not disappointed, but neither was I astonished. Disguised in a tale about a lion hunt told from two different perspectives, this is essentially a book about the many tribulations faced by the women who live in a Mozambican village and its consequences.

The first perspective the reader is presented with is that of Mariamar. She lives in Kulumani with her parents. Her sister Silência has recently died in result of a lion attack, and her mother, Hanifa Assulua, is struggling to deal with that fact. The traditions revolving around a person’s death are repeatedly displayed and are a first taste of the various magical realism elements that can be found throughout the book. Superstition still plays an important part in people’s lives, and many decisions are made with them in mind.

News soon arrive that a couple of people from the capital are going to the village to solve the problems posed by the lions and among them is a hunter. Hanifa becomes really distressed with the prospect of his arrival, because she believes that he will take Mariamar to the city. For that reason, she intends to leave the house and kill him. In order to stop her, her husband, Genito Mpepe, throws her against a cabinet. Mariamar intervenes to defend her mother and says she was the one who has called the lions so the hunter would go to the village.

Mariamar met Arcanjo once, sixteen years before, and became somewhat in awe of him. He saved her from an abusive policeman, and she now wants to help him in return. She is strong-willed and has an independent mind, but there is also something holding her back. She has a talent for writing and keeps a diary, which we are reading. Words, she believes, give women power, reason why some men won’t allow them to have a voice in society.

“Num mundo de homens e caçadores, a palavra foi a minha primeira arma.”

“In a world of men and hunters, the word was my very first weapon.”

Women from the village are almost always excluded and ignored. The abuses they suffer are overlooked and not openly discussed, in some instances because men accuse them of having gone crazy. The way in which the policeman Maliqueto harasses Mariamar with no real consequences, for example, demonstrates this. Throughout the book, animals are personified to convey the oppression of women.

The hunter, Arcanjo Baleiro, also keeps a diary, through which we get to know the story from his point of view. Both his parents died when he was only 10 years old. His father was seemingly shot accidentally by his brother, who has been at mental health unit since then. By the end of the book we realise that there is more to his backstory than we are led to believe at first.

More than an account of a hunt, Confession of the Lioness is a social examination. It’s not only women’s repression and subjugation that is delved into, although that is the book’s main theme. There are various references to poverty, social exclusion, and the consequences of civil war, all of which create the recipe for further oppression. All this gloom is slightly compensated by a funny and somewhat accurate portrayal of a politician who is accompanying Arcanjo. He wants the lion to be killed, because that was one of his political promises. He intends to take part in the hunt as well, so he can be seen by the people as part of the solution.

The prose is overall impressive and inspiring. I particularly enjoyed the occasions when the feelings of the characters are conveyed through descriptions of their gestures. There are also really beautiful instances of introspection about particular moments in life.

“Foi isso que senti ao ver o mar pela primeira vez: saudade desse ventre para onde, naquele momento, eu retornava. Saudade dessa morte doce, desse pulsar de um duplo coração, dessa água que, afinal, é todo o nosso corpo.”

“That was what I felt the first time I saw the ocean: a yearning for a womb to which I was returning at that moment. A yearning for that gentle death, that beating of a double heart, that water which, after all, is what our whole body is made of.”

Having read the book in the original Portuguese, I had to search online for a translation into English of the previous passage. I would never be able to make it justice myself, because I struggle to translate the word ‘saudade’, despite not thinking that it is an untranslatable word, as some do. It is just difficult to fully translate into English. David Brookshaw, who translated the first American edition, went for ‘yearning’, which is fine and maybe only lacks the sense of nostalgia also attached to it.

The story being told from the points of view of both Mariamar and Arcanjo in the first person helps us understand how individuals can perceive some events differently. However, I couldn’t form a strong opinion about the characters. I felt like I only got to know them on the surface, as they only revealed what they wanted to. Some of the horrific situations they went through, particularly Mariamar, and their reactions to them needed further exploration in my opinion.

Nevertheless, Mia Couto managed to paint a fictional thought-provoking picture of the suffering of the women from Kulumani that I don’t think will leave anyone indifferent.

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