By Staff Reporter
Such is the power of Mia Couto’s fiction that, after reading his chilling novel Confession of the Lioness, sculpted lions seem to be everywhere in Rome, where I meet him – from the crouching beast lapping at Bernini’s fountain in the Piazza Navona, to the stone heads guarding the Sant’Angelo bridge. Yet for Couto, a Mozambican novelist and environmental biologist who has recently finished a writer’s residency outside the city, “seeing a lion in the bush walking is the only time you really see a lion – the full dimensions of the animal. The way they face you is hypnotic.”
We met before Cecil the lion’s death in Zimbabwe at the hands of a Minnesota dentist sparked global protests. From his home in the Mozambican capital,Maputo, Couto later told me that he hoped the case would spur conservation. Lions are “colonial icons of the ‘real’ Africa”, he says. “But many lesser-known species, entire habitats and ecosystems are vanishing. It’s an easy stereotype to blame indigenous poachers. But this case, of a North American hunter using a bow and arrow, reveals something very different.”
Lusophone Africa’s most successful writer, shortlisted for the Man Booker international prize earlier this year, Couto also runs a company that conducts environmental impact assessments (“I like to divide myself”), while writing for the press and for a Maputo theatre group, Mutumbela Gogo. His fiction is translated into more than 20 languages, with four novels published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK. In 2013, he won the €100,000 Camões prize for a writer in Portuguese, and the following year the $50,000 Neustadt – the “US Nobel”.
His first novel, Sleepwalking Land (1992), was named by African critics as one of the continent’s top dozen books of the 20th century. It traces the trauma ofMozambique’s civil war of 1977-92, which came on the heels of the liberation war and independence from Portugal in 1975. An orphan boy and an elderly man take refuge in a burned-out bus, reliving the life of one of its massacred passengers through his diary. Published in the year of the Rome peace accords, the novel has been adapted for the stage, and fundraising is under way for an operatic version with a libretto by the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell – who has a house in Maputo.
Initially a poet and journalist, Couto still sees himself as a “poet writing prose”. When I first met him in London in 1990, his debut short stories, Voices Made Night, were forging his reputation as a magical realist. Yet Couto, who turned 60 last month, is dismissive of a “label not created by writers. In Colombia, Mexico, Nigeria, Mozambique, it’s the real thing, not magic, and the only way to tell these stories.” When an ox “bursts without so much as a moo”, its flesh transformed into “red butterflies”, this is not the supernatural, but a child’s uncomprehending perception of a land mine.
In Confession of the Lioness, published last month in a translation by David Brookshaw, the hunter and the writer gradually swap roles. The novel was inspired by real events in northern Mozambique in 2008. Couto had sent 15 field officers to Cabo Delgado, near the Tanzanian border, to assess the impact of seismic prospecting for oil. When their visit coincided with a terrifying spate of lion attacks, he went to investigate. Over four months, “25 women were devoured by a group of lions. I faced not just lions but ancient fears and phantoms.” Some villagers believed the predators were “lions in the night and people in the day. They asked, ‘Why are you taking guns? These lions are not killed by bullets.’” In a spiralling mystery, the threat emerges as more social than supernatural. Couto says women were targeted because they work alone, and “lions choose the weakest”. Yet it became a metaphor. “It’s a very patriarchal society, with high levels of violence against women. Women are ‘eaten’ by their society and by life itself.”
Couto is not against hunting, “if it’s controlled by rules”, he says. “These traditional hunters are helping our work as conservationists. A small group preserves a culture of ‘honour’ to balance hunter and prey. They see that the new wave of opportunistic hunting puts the sustainability of game at risk.” Traditional hunters do not relish the killing, so much as the “unique moment where they migrate from themselves to become the animal. It’s a magical moment, on the borderline between animality and being human.” The imaginative act of becoming other than ourselves is also essential to writing and reading fiction. As a boy in Beira, Mozambique’s second city, António Emílio Leite Couto renamed himself Mia, or miaow. “My parents took photos of me when I was three, sleeping and eating with the cats on the veranda. I didn’t just like cats; I thought I was a cat. Every child feels that more open borderline between themselves and other beings and creatures.”
The essays of Pensativities, also published last month, confirm Couto’s status as a public intellectual. In an open letter to South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, in April, he condemned the violence against Mozambican migrants that left several dead. Couto, who knew Zuma in Maputo in the 1980s, reminded him of the refuge Mozambique afforded anti-apartheid fighters – and the high price: “The fragile Mozambican economy was wrecked. Our territory was invaded and bombed.” Stung, Zuma responded with his own open letter to Couto, affirming their friendship and denying blanket xenophobia, yet urging a halt to illegal migration. Couto, who says he was persuaded to intervene by other writers, was surprised the president replied. He believes the two neighbours need reminding of a shared history. “We’re so close but we don’t know each other. The stereotype of a Mozambican in South Africa is a guy working in the mines.”
He wrote the letter as chair of the Fernando Leite Couto Foundation, which he and his brothers started in April to nurture young writers. It honours their father, who died two years ago. An “atheist poet” and communist from Portugal, he opposed the fascist dictator Antônio Salazar, and fled into exile with his wife in the early 50s, to Portugal’s “overseas province”, where Couto was born. “My father knew independence was coming, and he fought for it. My parents educated me and my brothers to be part of the new country.” When the colonial authorities ousted his journalist father from a newspaper, “that was a hard time for us. My mother went to a bishop for help, but he said, ‘I don’t see your husband in church.’ My father refused to go to church just to get a job. But there’s a picture of him later on his knees.”
Asked why several novels are dialogues between young narrators and dead grandfathers, Couto recalls, aged seven, seeing his father cry for the first time. “He’d received a letter from Portugal saying his father was dead. I tried to comfort him, saying, ‘How can grandfather be dead? He died there but here, he’s still alive.’ Relatives were alive in our house because of my parents telling stories about what they’d left behind.”
Growing up in a colonial-style house, in a town built on mud and mangroves, “on the other side of the road was Africa. In daily life there was a borderline. But we were encouraged in our house to cross it. I played with black kids, heard their stories and spoke their languages. I was lucky.” He moved to the colonial capital at 16 to study medicine. But like his elder brother, he joined the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo). “It was natural. The racial violence was so visible. We didn’t need proselytising; we knew.” He dreamed of being Che Guevara, but was instructed to infiltrate a colonial newspaper (“Fortunately – because now I know I’d never be able to fight with guns”). Reporting from across the country inspired him to become a writer.
The biggest threat was “not just the authorities, but the white neighbours. For them, we were race traitors.” After Portugal’s 1974 carnation revolution – the prelude to independence – “our neighbours tried to force down the door. My brother was on a hit list. We had to disappear underground.” After independence, propelled into directing a daily newspaper, and the new Mozambique Information Agency, he saw rough justice. When print workers caught a man they said was trying to break a machine and should face the revolutionary police, Couto allowed him home to say goodbye to his wife. “She came and said he’d killed himself.” He gestures at his neck. “I’ll never forget it. I was 19.”
As civil war raged, cities were cut off. “I felt I couldn’t write about it till it was over. I had two children and nothing to buy; every day was a challenge to survive.” A colleague and his family “were all killed; ambushed and burned by Renamo” – the Mozambique National Resistance, sponsored by Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. “It was a terrorist war.” Of seven journalists in a photo he has kept, all but two were killed. “I realised, Jesus, I’m a survivor. I feel lucky and guilty – protected. Maybe I’m romanticising, but it’s as if they’re telling you: you’ll be the one to tell the story.” Writing Sleepwalking Land, “I had insomnia; every night those people’s voices came into my mind like a nightmare”.
Before the war’s end, when he was 30, he returned to university to study and teach biology, which he speaks of with an almost pantheistic reverence. Biology is “my way of praying, of feeling part of something bigger. It’s a language to understand our intimate relationship with the ‘others’ – plants and animals. It’s important to regain that link between nature and humanity.” His wife, Patrícia, is a haematologist and “third-generation Mozambican”, and their daughter, aged 24, is an actor. Couto has a son in his 30s from his first marriage, as does his wife (“We’re a modern family”), and three grandchildren. Both sons are biologists.
Mankell has described Couto as a “white man with an African soul”. But this dualism distorts Couto’s vision. “I’m a white guy and an African; the son of Europeans and Mozambicans; a scientist living in a very religious world; a writer in an oral society. These are apparently contradictory worlds that I like to unite because they’re part of me.” He adds, “when I think of a character, it’s a black person; 99% of Mozambicans are black … I want to tell stories in the borderlines, and which cross frontiers.”
He is proud that Mozambique now has democracy and press freedom, and says he faces this year’s 40th anniversary without personal regrets. “It was an epic moment, and I was so happy during my youth. I still vote for Frelimo because there’s no other option, but I’m not with this project. They changed quickly from socialist to capitalist, and behave as anyone does with power.” In his Rome hotel near Bernini’s marble elephant, he talks of a steep rise in poaching. “The guilty ones are not the local people, but the military and the police who profit. The Mozambican authorities at a very high level are closing their eyes to the trade in ivory and rhino horn. There’s a need to satisfy the military from the liberation struggle, who say, what’s my privilege now? So elephants disappear.”
Soon after Cecil’s death, the Mozambican authorities burned the world’s largest ever seizure of rhino horn in a vaunted signal of zero-tolerance for poaching. Couto feels a cautious optimism: “I think there is a new attitude, but let’s see what the government does. I am a pessimist with a lot of hope.”