Saturday, August 29, 2020

WITMonth Day 29 | Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano | Review

There's a lot of meta to unpack before I can write about Léonora Miano's Dark Heart of the Night, translated from French by Tamsin Black. Miano, after all, is credited with disliking the University of Nebraska Press edition of Dark Heart of the Night even on her own Wikipedia page, having publicly critiqued the book's foreword (which I assume has been removed from subsequent print runs, since my edition has none) and much of the book's paratext (cover and title). A little digging reveals that Miano had serious concerns about how the University of Nebraska Press ultimately framed the book, from the foreword that was "full of lies" to changing the book's original title to resemble Heart of Darkness (a comparison that is also mirrored in the back cover description). I thus came into Dark Heart of the Night knowing that Miano had critiques, but not quite remembering what they were, instead reading into it more after reading the book. And I have to say - her critiques are valid from all sorts of perspectives and also point to a pivotal reading of the novella itself.

I'll start with my conclusion: Dark Heart of the Night is a bit of a brutal, unpleasant read, but one that is uncompromising and fascinating. It's a book that batters its reader again and again from all sorts of perspectives and doesn't seem particularly concerned with expectations of how the story is supposed to advance or fall into place. Its pacing is steady, its plot scattered without a single fixed peak, and its emotional impact a sort of pulsing, constant effect. Miano packs an extensive critique of different forms of violence and community life in the short novel, with a sense that there is much more that she could say on either topic (as well as many others). Dark Heart of the Night does a lot, almost all of it efficiently and effectively, and the end result makes for a book that is hard to set aside but also... not entirely enjoyable.

One of my impressions while reading Dark Heart of the Night was the Miano sought to create a sort of generic form of violence in the face of war and chaos. Miano's descriptions of village life as a contrast to city life all felt a little purposely blurred, with fictional names designed to place her story across a wide range of regions. Nationalism does not feature in regards to this specific country, exactly, rather the story's core violence stems from a place of a flawed and despotic perception of African identity. Perhaps I should have, but I did not assign too much importance to this on a deeper level; can Miano not critique violence in the same way that any other novelist might write of in the world? 

The brutality of violence that Miano introduces feels like a contrast to the individual identity subplot that centers now-village-outsider Ayané who has returned to her home village following her mother's death, yet the two narratives intertwine in defining identity, community, and belonging. Dark Heart of the Night is not just its most violent moments, but also their aftermath, their effects, and the way these fit into larger political balances. It seems important to remember that the novel continues past what can be viewed as its darkest moments, with that unrelenting continued bluntness. 

It's hard to write about Dark Heart of the Night without getting into details, and I think that any details take away from the book's power. It is a powerful novel, in many of its different threads. It's true that they occasionally muddle and the writing style sometimes feel out of place for the different subplots, but the book on the whole is depressingly effective. 

It's also - to loop back to my introduction - a lot more nuanced and complex than its paratext would suggest. To begin with, the back cover description centers Ayané in a way that frankly seems to emphasize one of the novel's themes over others. While Ayané is very much the novel's main character, she is often counterbalanced within the story and her experience contrasted. These contrasts feel important in how Miano builds a larger narrative regarding that blurry African identity. Furthermore, the casting of the novel through the lens of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (a work that has roundly been criticized for its racist, generalizing portrayal of Africa, though I have not read it myself...) also seems to strip away some of the weight of Miano's vague placement of her story. I can't imagine how the original foreword also attempted to alter Miano's experiences and identity herself in order to fit a narrative regarding African literature. Why can Dark Heart of the Night not simply be allowed to stand on its own?

I'm not sure that my own review doesn't fall into similar, problematic patterns in terms of what I'm mistakenly focusing on. I feel as though I walked into the novel mostly unaware of the controversies and thankfully unaware of the actual plot. (For once, I can at least be grateful for the book's vague and vaguely inaccurate back cover for not creating false expectations.) I read the book with little external context and without feeling like I knew enough to place Dark Heart of the Night's plot in any one specific place. My ignorance, it seems, ultimately matches Miano's own intentions. But is my sense that Miano is deeply involved with questions of identity something that follows from the retrospective reading of her critiques of the original foreword? Am I misreading her response to it? Was there something else in reading this novella that I was supposed to take away? Knowing what I now know in terms of Miano's own sense of her work, I find myself wishing for a deeper, detailed analysis that views Miano's work as part of a larger whole. Individual debut work as it may be, Miano clearly has had more to say, having published several books over the past decade. Would we as readers not benefit from reading those works as well? (Yes, we would.)

I did not struggle with reading Dark Heart of the Night, though the book saddened, angered, and disheartened me in many ways, as I believe it intended. The writing is brisk and clean, and again, the pacing is remarkably steady for a book that contains several different gut-punch peaks. It is far from a pleasant book, but it is definitely a good one, perhaps even a great one. It is certainly a work worth reading. I also think there is some value in the questions it forces us to grapple with regarding how works by African writers in translation (and perhaps African women writers more specifically?) are packaged for English-speaking audiences. Miano's critiques may be presented as a surprising bit of anger from an author over how her writing is sold in translation ("drama"), but ultimately it's worth noting two things: 1. The original foreword no longer appears in print, and 2. Miano's critiques end up providing a much better context for what Dark Heart of the Night is trying to do than the book's remaining paratext itself. I suppose some good comes of bad as well...

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