Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist: Henrietta Rose-Innes discusses the genesis of her novel Green Lion
Published in the Sunday Times
Henrietta Rose-Innes (Umuzi)
My “spark” was a lion in a glass case. The South African Museum in Cape Town has always been a potent place for me: my mother worked there, and I’ve been visiting it pretty much since birth. There’s a picture there that entranced me as a child – a black-and-white photo of a stuffed Cape black-maned lion, a subspecies that was hunted to extinction in the 19th century. There are no such specimens remaining in South Africa, and only a handful in the world. (One of the most satisfying episodes in researching Green Lion was tracking down that very same diorama in the depths of the London Natural History Museum.) That lost lion is a poignant emblem of species destruction, and was for me a natural and personally affecting starting point for a novel about our estrangement from the non-human world. It was also clear that the story had to play out on Table Mountain, which looms large in my relationship with Cape Town.
I’m interested in how this city lays claim to our patch of semi-wilderness: the competing demands of access, ownership, exclusion and conservation. In the world of the novel, these problems have been “solved” by fencing off the mountain to keep out all but a few privileged tourists – with predictably troubling results.
Green Lion was written at a time when I was very preoccupied, because of family circumstances, with ageing, mortality and the attempt to rescue what we love from time and oblivion. These old dilemmas are intertwined with the anxiety of environmental change, and are ultimately what drive Con’s hopeless pursuit of Sekhmet, his beloved, impossible, soon-to-be-gone-from-this-world lioness.
Soon Con had established a routine. Each day he was at work early to do an hour or so of e-mailing and to listen for the lioness’s first groans and rumbles. Then he’d go out to the refrigerated shed, where a bloody bucket had been set aside by the nightshift. It would be heavy with meat: a big beef bone, two whole plucked chickens. The corridor to the den would still be in shadow, cool and pungent.
He’d pause at the exterior bars, smelling, watching. Unlike Isak with his whistles and bangs, Con didn’t have to make a sound. She knew he was there.
Movement in the shadowy back of the cage – nothing dramatic, just a kind of lolling, side to side. She could be very silent when she wanted to be, almost delicate. Then two large lemon-yellow eyes, pale moons, materialising in the gloom. The suggestion of a massive head, lowered from the shoulders. Bigger, much bigger than the lion statues at the memorial; she might take his whole skull in her mouth. A guttural rumble filled the air between them and vibrated through his flesh – in his throat, in his eyeballs, in his groin. His heart sped up, pumping a rich new mixture. He could feel his pupils expanding, the hairs standing up on his arms and the back of his neck. Not a purr: a lush, continuous growl.
“Hello, girl,” he’d say, although he couldn’t hear his own words; the lion’s voice enveloped any other sound. It made the bars tremble like tuning forks. Beyond them, one layer of wire mesh, as thin as skin, separating the human from its ancient enemy. The animal on that side of the wire was designed to do one thing: demolish the animal on this, on his side. Con wasn’t brave enough to touch the bars. He took out the big key and tapped it once on the metal: a formal click of greeting. Now, the next part of the game.
He hauled the bucket up to the ramparts and cranked open the gate, whistled softly through his teeth, and tossed the meat down into the arena. He didn’t bother with the gloves these days, and his hands were red to the elbow and chilled by the time he’d cleaned out the pail. Above him on the slope he could hear the groan of the first tour bus pulling up. Although there was only one unco-operative lion left to pull the punters, still they came.
His communion with the lioness was unpredictable. Sometimes, he was allowed to glimpse only significant parts: a paw, a flank, an eye; as with the elephant in the fable, he could never see the whole. She’d wait for him to look away, then slip out and snag the meat, pulling it inside or into the shelter of a rock or bush. Often, though, she’d let him watch her eat through the observation window. Sometimes she’d lift her eyes momentarily from her bloody meal to meet his gaze through the glass.