In the popular imagination, Africa is one great big game reserve where man can hunt to his heart’s content, relishing the thrill of the dangerous chase. Theodore Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway (that hackneyed darling of writing course instructors), recounted testosterone-fuelled tales of derring-do as they pursued their prey across the vast “uncivilized” plains of Africa. Roosevelt returned to the US with thousands of specimens – lions, elephants, rhinoceros – duly donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Disney’s film The Lion King is the second-highest-grossing Disney film of all time. It depicts all kinds of animals frolicking across great, untamed African landscapes devoid of human beings – whereas the reality is more likely to be that Africa becomes a great landscape empty of animals.
Green Lion is a deftly-executed novel about man and beast and extinction; about bereavement, animal magic and the human desire for connection. It opens with the mauling of volunteer zoo keeper, Mark Carolissen, who ends up in hospital in a coma. He was looking after a rare black-maned Cape Lion, Dmitri, kept in kept in captivity for breeding with lioness, Sekhmet. Visitors gawp in thrilling terror at the kings of the animal world, safe behind glass.
Constantine Marais a.k.a. Con goes to pick up his friend’s belongings from Cape Town zoo. “He walked on, fingers trailing across each archway. Bars, stone, bars, stone – and then a clang as his arm was smacked back by the force of some huge hot weight throwing itself against the metal [ . . .] The creature had retreated but was still there, hidden in the shadows, pacing growling . . .” He ends up doing his friend’s job, as a volunteer, and looks after the lonely lioness. The zoo is suffering from financial constraints, though the director dreams of expansion and creating a safe space for animals, since “the focus is on species loss.”
Nowadays, zoos are becoming a thing of the past: moving animals from the wild to captivity is traumatic. Being caged disrupts and curtails the natural behaviour patterns of animals, many of which develop neurotic and self-harming behaviour. Elephants sway back and forth. Tigers and black bears pace their enclosures incessantly. Polar bears swim in endless figure-of-eight patterns. Birds peck at their feathers, creating bald patches. Yet Zoos are also considered helpful in the preservation of rare and endangered species, even though it is not possible to replicate natural habitats.
Henrietta Rose-Innes builds up a portrait of Mark and Con’s friendship dating back to their school days by means of vivid flashbacks. “Mark was a tall, slender boy with a long face and long hands and a fall of black fringe over one eye. He had a quick humour and already the teachers all liked him. Girls, too. By the second week of school, he was offering to finish a popular girl’s needlework homework. He was that kind of boy; he could knit an angora scarf and it would be cool and funny, not naff. The colours were the school colours but funked up, just a little off – purple instead of maroon, sky blue instead of navy. The girl kept that scarf around her neck for weeks, although the days were hot. The knitting was good, too – the stitches chunkily rounded. Fluid and attractive, like his handwriting, like his drawings in art class.”
Mark’s well-off parents and adoring little sister form a loving family unit. Their spacious home is full of ancestral hunting trophies. Whereas Con’s single, hoarder mother is something of an endearing hippy, her little house stuffed with junk, “she never threw anything away. Animals, old bills, boyfriends – she kept them close.” Con’s gorgeous, long-limbed actress girlfriend, Elyse, lives in a modern block of flats and provides stability in his aimless, drifting life. His inner world is frozen; he is disconnected from his emotions as he struggles with grief – for his friend lying in hospital in a coma, and for his dying mother.
Con’s relationship with the lioness, Sekhmet, is underpinned by a powerful erotic charge. I was reminded of a favourite short story by Honoré de Balzac, Passion in the Desert, about a young French officer who is separated from his Napoleonic regiment and is trapped in a cave where he is found by a leopard with whom he develops a mysterious and highly-charged relationship.
Cape Town’s Table Mountain is gradually fenced off by the Parks Department as a game reserve for wealthy trophy hunters, while certain indigenous species – “antelope, zebra, baboons, breeding pairs of eagles” – are reintroduced inside the reserve in a bid at conservation. To access the mountain permits and guides are required. Fences keep people and wild animals apart. Con goes with his mother and her friends on a “HANDS OFF OUR MOUNTAIN” demo and they are crushed up against the chain fence by the police. On the other side there lies a sprawling shantytown, Leeukop, home to people neglected by affluent society.
Con begins to drift further and further away from his stylish, modern girlfriend who has left far behind her “the bad old days” of her farming family. He becomes embroiled with oddball Mossie and a group of zany animal activists who look for “different ways of getting contact with wild animals” and their uninhibited, totemic primal energy. When humans start to think they are animals they find themselves on a slippery slope to danger (after all, look at what happened to Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man . . .)
The final end game plays with the idea of a safari as Con ends up in pursuit of his prey on Table Mountain. “It was all dead, dead, dead. There were no lions here. Not for three hundred years. This mountain was finished, cleaned out, used up, out. Nothing. The misted-out sky was blank as a painted wall, the things around him – these rocks, these crumbs of damp, quartz-salted earth – each as crisply defined in the diffuse light as a relic in a museum case, and as drained of life.”
Individual vs. family, rich vs. poor, man vs. wild animal, conservation vs. extinction: Henrietta Rose-Innes’ multi-layered narrative addresses all these contradictions skilfully and with lightness of touch. Green Lion speaks to us urgently of another kind of moral responsibility to that which we are used to receiving from South African writers, namely that of “understanding how we engage with the creatures who share our planet.”
We must face the very real possibility of the extinction of life on the Earth, and collectively DO something before it is too late. Progress is a death knell for the animal world. Two-thirds of the world’s vertebrate species have disappeared. Tons of plastic are poured into the oceans on a daily basis; most of it ends up in the stomachs of birds and marine mammals that die in agony by the thousands along the shoreline. Earth is already in the midst of a sixth mass extinction after that of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago. After this generation has gone, it will be too late.
Green Lion is one of the best novels about man and his environment that I have read in a long time. I hope it wins a prize.
Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes | Gallic Books | 21 August £8.99 304pp PB | ISBN: 978-19107092502
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