Review: When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Solà (translated by Mara Feye Lethem)

This short, elemental novel begins on a mountain in the Pyrenees in Catalonia. Domènec, a farmer, has gone up into the peaks to retrieve a calf and also to recite his poetry, because “when a man is alone there’s no need to think in silence”. Except he’s not really alone, because his story is being told by the clouds that come gathering in with their “black bellies” full of rain and wind. Those clouds soon unleash thunder and lightning, striking Domènec dead. His death is witnessed by four women, executed for witchcraft, who still haunt the mountain. They’re like the witches from Suspiria — one laughs, one cries, another tells stories, the oldest is silent. Down in the valley Domènec leaves behind his wife Siò and his children Hilari and Mia.

Domènec’s death is something of a prologue to this deceptively folksy tale. Chapters are narrated by a host of human characters — the village handyman, Hilari and Mia, the brooding Jaume, a tourist from the city, a blind man — and also the more-than-human — ghosts, sprites, a roe-deer, a dog, a colony of mushrooms, the mountains themselves.

Solà illuminates the gendered nature of labour, whether creative or otherwise. Domènec feels oppressed by his family life at home. “It’s hard to come up with verses and contemplate the virtue hidden inside all things when the kids are crying,” the clouds tell us. But later we find out his wife Siò feels similarly: “She stops being the centre of her own life … because they’ve forced her to renounce everything she ever wanted”. That “they” is not just her children, but her family who married her off and Domènec himself. Later again, their son Hilari also takes to speaking poetry aloud to the mountains, saying things about poetry like, “it’s got freedom and the ability to move you, to let you glimpse the infinite … the infinite dwells in each of us like a window at the top of our heads”. I couldn’t help but read these passages in a lightly mocking tone. Historically it’s been men who’ve most often captured and expressed the sublime scenery around them, while the women wile away at home. Other characters upend these gendered relationships to nature. The witches are hilarious and filthy, pissing on crosses and licking goat’s arses. Later, they are present at a magnificently rendered birth scene in a cave:

The woman kneels behind Blanca and stays there, with both hands beneath her womb. One arm in front, the other arm behind Blanca’s ass, round, white, and full. The woman has her hands at the front where life emerges, as if harvesting grapes, as if gathering handfuls of water, and then the little head comes out all at once.

Its preoccupations with history strike a similar tone. Characters are haunted by the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s Nationalists. The bailiff’s daughter obsessively collects military debris left behind in the mountains. Another narrator, a little girl who lost her leg to a bomb now runs with the ghosts of the mountain. She says she has fled war with her family, her father and siblings dying in camps in France. But which war? It is not so obviously the Civil War. It could equally be an older war, or a newer one, perhaps Libya or Syria, and whether she is dead or a child of the forest is similarly difficult to resolve.

These instabilities of time pervade When I Sing, Mountains Dance. But then there’s a date or a detail that pierces the narrative, undercutting the feeling of timelessness. We know, for instance, that Domènec and Siò married in 1964. Later their daughter uses Facebook to track a missing person. A tourist tramping in the mountains celebrates the quaint peasant vibes they find in the village, but bemoans how everything is closed because the people are in mourning. “The butcher’s shop is so authentic,” they say, “behind the counter are an old man and a young girl, both with accents so strong you have to concentrate or you won’t understand a thing”. Another narrator reconnects with village traditions through a bear festival. An initial chapter roars with the ancient voice of human-bear — “We were sleeping for a very long time and now we are awake,” they cry — but the next reveals the festival’s modern setting, complete with legally wed same-sex parents. This play with time reminded me of Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, which Solà quotes in the epigraph. For nine-tenths of that novel it’s not particularly clear in what century it takes place, until suddenly visitors arrive with news of World War I on the continent.

The individual voices on they own are playful, delightful, funny, poignant, quaint, wise, naïve; a remarkable display of ventriloquism, as if Solà is performing the whole orchestra. But all together they strike a cooler note. Time is the governing force of this novel, not protagonist or antagonist but inevitable. Even if it itself is not granted a voice, it flows in between every chapter and line. I suppose the closest in perspective to that of the book’s is the mountains’, whose geological existence renders most of the life upon them irrelevant. “Nothing lasts very long,” the mountains say chillingly, “Not a thing. Not stillness. Nor calamity. Nor the sea. Nor your ugly little children. Nor the earth that tolerates your puny little feet.” Time might braid and loop, pool and rush on, but it moves inexorably onwards. All that life can do is try to move with it, like the deer rushing through the forest:

I set off, like the clouds, even faster!, the forest moves beneath me, beneath me, the ground trotted, I ran so far the trees stepped aside.

And just like time, it’s perhaps folly to attempt to pin this whirlwind of a novel down.

Gay rating: 3/5 for some queer characters and relationships.


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