when I sing, mountains dance by Irene Solà
Translated by Mara Faye Lethem
Review by Jessica Gigot
Graywolf Press, 2022
“The land knows you, even when you are lost,” writes botanist, author, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer. This notion echoes throughout when I sing, mountains dance (Graywolf Press, 2022), Catalan writer Irene Solà’s English-language debut novel. Translated by Mara Faye Lethem, this lyrical and often dreamlike story spirals between past and present—offering a multi-generational story firmly rooted in a small Pyrenees village.
In the first chapter, we encounter the patriarch of the family (Domènec) before he is struck and killed by lightning. What follows in his wake is a peculiar collection of mislaid voices, human and non-human alike. Bear, roe-deer, a dog, and even the geology of the land itself have a point of view (and a chapter). The black chanterelles state, “We remember the rain. We remember it deep down, in the darkness that was the beginning.” Despite the dangers of anthropomorphizing, Solà embraces animism and other-worldliness in her unique, non-linear form of fiction that both illuminates and grounds the narrative into an ecosystem.
We also hear from a web of characters including neighbors, visitors, Domènec’s wife Sió, and eventually his daughter, Mia, who emerges as the central character of the book. To whittle this novel down to a story of grief would betray its enduring, complex formation. While Mia does lose her family and, as a result, her first love, she manages to go on just as the land and animals have persisted through past disasters, including war. While Mia becomes more visible throughout the book, we don’t hear her quiet voice until the last chapter titled “The Ghost” in which she encounters her late brother in the garden. Mia reflects, “The night is pleasant, I don’t want it to end.”
Stylistically, this book attempts to dissolve, or at least challenge, the boundaries of poetry and prose, which is well-described by Domènec’s son, Hilari, from beyond the grave in the chapter “Poetry”: “I keep all my poems in my head as if inside a tidy drawer. I’m a vase filled with water. Simple, fresh water like the springs and runnels. I lie down and the verses just pour out.” Lyrical fiction is too narrow a definition for Solà’s work, who is at once celebrating history and language while experimenting with narrative structure and form.
It seems as if the author is pouring herself into Hilari’s words and reflections on poetry, including an argument for the sensorial impact of oral traditions. Knowing that Solà works across genres, including visual arts, one should not be surprised that poetry would be addressed this way and so directly. Overall, the effective language, associative leaps, and successful brevity of this book speak to the case that we do indeed need more poets redefining the limits of fiction.
Romanticizing the rural has been a perpetual issue in literature, making the reader yearn for places wide and open, and equating that farness with a sense of freedom. However, the one thing Solà’s characters lack is just that: freedom. Whether bound by marriage, guilt, love, or history, the story itself exists because the characters remained tied to a place: “The land knows you, even when you are lost.” To be known, to belong, requires a sense of sacrifice and duty that Solà conveys well and maybe even struggles with herself in a world where conservation and progress are often philosophically at odds.
In a 2014 article for Modern Farmer, Sarah Searle wrote, “The ‘pastoral ideal’ appeals through romanticizing the simplicity of the unindustrialized past and glorifying a time when middle-class folks didn’t wake up early for hectic commutes but to tend to chickens.” The emphasis in when I sing, mountains dance on resilience versus nostalgia makes this novel successful while still whimsical at times. There is a respect for Catalan culture and history without a naïve yearning to go backwards.
Solà not only trusts her readers; she befriends them through humor and her creative sensibilities, which all translate well. During a time of widespread environmental destruction and conflict, the intimate relationships forged amongst community members and in communion with nature in when I sing, mountains dance are a balm, albeit a bitter one. In the chapter “The Setting,” an eager tourist arrives for a day hike in this mountain village. As they realize everything in town is closed for a funeral, they acknowledge, “Life and death, life and death and instinct and violence are present in every single moment up here.” While true, what also surfaces in this extreme terrain is an undercurrent of simplicity and spirit that Solà makes real and offers to the reader as nourishment.
Jessica Gigot is a poet and farmer. She lives on a small, sheep farm in the Skagit Valley. Her second book of poems, Feeding Hour (Wandering Aengus Press, 2020) won a Nautilus Award and was a finalist for the 2021 Washington State Book Award. Jessica’s writing and reviews appear in several publications. She is currently a poetry editor for The Hopper and a 2022 Jack Straw Writer. Her memoir, A Little Bit of Land, will be published by Oregon State University Press in 2022.