domingo, agosto 02, 2015

Writing Is a Dangerous Form of Vanity: "Confession of the Lioness" by Mia Couto

Published July 14, 2015 (English edition)
Published 2012 (Portuguese Edition)

Translation by David Brookshaw.

Disclaimer: I received an advance reader's copy of this book directly from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.
(The book was published on July 2015; review written 02/08/2015)

“Careful, my granddaughter. Writing is a dangerous form of vanity. It fills the others with fear…” (Page 88)
(In the original Portuguese: “Cuidado, minha neta. Escrever é perigosa vaidade. Dá medo aos outros…”)

“The emptier one’s life, the more it is peopled by those who’ve already gone: the exiled, the insane, and the dead.” (Page 46)
(In the original Portuguese: “Quanto mais vazia a vida, mais ela é habitada por aqueles que já foram: os exilados, os loucos, os falecidos”.

God was once a woman. Before he exiled himself far from his creation, and while he has still not assumed the name of Nungu, the current Lord of the Universe looked like all the mothers in this world. In this other time, we spoke the same language as the oceans, the land, and the heavens. According to my father, that kingdom perished long ago. But somewhere within us, there remains the memory of that far-off age.”
(In the original Portuguese: “Deus já foi mulher. Antes de se exilar para longe da sua criação e quando ainda não se chamava Nungu, o atual Senhor do Universo parecia-se com todas as mães deste mundo. Nesse outro tempo, falávamos a mesma língua dos mares, da terra e dos céus. O meu avô diz que esse reinado há muito que morreu. Mas resta, algures dentro de nós, a memória dessa época longínqua.”

For those of you who don’t know, Mia Couto is one of the most prominent writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa. Mia Couto was born in Beira, Mozambique. He was a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. He’s also won the Camões Prize (the most prestigious Portuguese-language award), the 2014 recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (the so-called “American” Nobel). Incidentally the 2015 Man Booker Prize winner was László Krasznahorkai.

Back in the day I extensively read in Portuguese. Now not so much. Why? The Portuguese Spelling Reform is the culprit, but that’s for another time and place. When I got the chance to read the latest translation into English of one the most important writers writing in Portuguese I didn’t hesitate.

This is a novel about Water, Death, Eating, the Soul, Madness, Writing, and Hunting.  All these elements come together to produce one hell a novel wherein water is death, eating is a way to consume the soul, madness is a refuge, and writing is similar to the hunt. Myths, magic, tradition and reality converge to the extent that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. Such is Africa. What distinguishes Couto’s magical realism from his South-American counterparts (Borges comes to mind)? Couto’s is never too cozy, i.e., he rather prefers leaning toward a detached, and documentary depiction of implausible interpretations of unseemly events. The acceptance of magic in the rational world, permeates the belief system of each character: “There’s no law here, no government, and even God only visits us occasionally.” Is there a better way to translate Africa into words?

The book uses a first-person narrative, and it’s told from alternating perspectives of Mariamar and Bullseye: Archangel Bullseye (strange translation of the “Arcanjo Baleeiro” in Portuguese; “Baleeiro” in Portuguese is the name given to a ship going whaling; “Bullseye” as far as I’m aware is some type of rifle).

This is the first translation I’ve read by David Brookshaw of a Mia Couto’s novel. On top of that, I haven’t read the original edition in Portuguese (I’ve got it at home and it’s looking at me as I write these words…). I’ve read other Couto’s novels in Portuguese, and I’m not sure whether the novel’s pontificate prose arises from Couto’s writing or from its rendering into English. Couto’s prose from his other novels always lean on absurdist humor which is entirely absent here.

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