Many of the books I read illustrate just how connected we are to each other. One character’s actions will affect another character’s life, who will in turn change a third character’s life. But every now and then, I’ll read a book about people and places that are so isolated from the rest of the world that they might as well be on another planet. The village of Kulumani, Mozambique, is such a place. Mia Couto’s novel, Confession of the Lioness, is a disorienting, hypnotic journey to a place on the edge of the desert, were lions (or something worse) are hunting the women of the village.
Couto’s novel is divided into two narratives. Mariamar is a daughter of Kulumani. Through her, we learn about the gristly deaths of her sister and other women by lions. The other narrator is Archangel Bullseye, a hunter who is the son of a hunter, who has been summoned to rid the village of its nemeses. The plot set up sounds a bit like the premise of The Ghost and the Darkness* but this novel is light years away.
There is a deep sense of unrealness about Confession of the Lioness right from the start. Mariamar’s narrative makes it clear that there is something deeply wrong with Kulimani. The traditionalists are at war with the Christians and are doing their damnedest to make things go back to the way they used to be, before the war and the Portuguese and the Germans. The local government are at war with the traditionalists and their superstitions. This might have been enough conflict for any story, but there is another layer. The men are at war with the women. The sense of unrealness keeps the real horror of Kulumani at bay for a while. When I worked out what was happening, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.
I didn’t get far into the book before I picked up on the fact that the lion attacks were not the work of actual lions. Bulleye’s narrative confirms this, but there are also hints in Mariamar’s story that something more sinister than man-eating lions is happening. At one point, Mariamar remembers the words of her grandfather, who told her, “You were so treated like an animal that you thought you were one” (180**). There are more clues that the people of Kulumani have been irreversibly changed by the violence of the past. They’ve done terrible things. Confession of the Lioness poses a disturbing question: can people who’ve behaved like depraved beasts ever really be human again? The conclusion of the book is not optimistic.
I finished Confession of the Lioness two days ago, but I’ve been sitting on this review ever since I finished the last page. This book disturbed me. Kulumani’s war between the men and the woman, between the traditionalists and the secularists, can be read as a microcosm of similar conflicts in the larger world. The fact that the village is so isolated only draws attention to the gravity of the situation. At the edge of the desert, there is no escape—just as there is no escape from this planet. The conflicts are going to have to be solved somehow. One can only hope that it doesn’t take being torn apart by something that’s not a lion to force a reckoning at last.
* Which was itself based on a real story.
**Quotes are from the 2012 kindle edition, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux