Philosophical concepts tend to be topics for abstract discussions in ivory towers. In that setting, the real world sometimes seems secondary to applying various modes of logic and reasoning. Cameroon-born author Léonora Miano's novel Dark Heart of the Night illustrates how fiction can personify such concepts and their role in the lives of one or many.
Miano's focus is fatalism, something philosophers categorize by the logic and arguments that support it and distinguish from such things as determinism and predestination. That is far from what Dark Heart of the Night does. It seeks to show its role and implications in the context of African society and development.
The relatively short novel examines these issues largely from the viewpoint of Ayané. Now living in France, she has returned to Eku, her remote village in a fictional African country, because her mother is dying. Like her parents, Ayané did not follow the traditional practices of her clan. Even her name is not traditional and her status as an outsider, a "witch," increased when she left Eku to pursue an education and now lives in a land quite alien to the villagers. When she returns, the villagers have been ordered not to leave by group of armed rebels/militia in the nearby hills. When the armed men enter Eku the night after Ayané's mother dies, she is in a tree she was using to survey a way out. Thus, in addition to remaining an outsider, she becomes an unseen witness as the rebels threaten and kill villagers and order them to participate in a gruesome ritual they've created.
Despite the brutality, the villagers acquiesce in what is done to them. Because of their customs and traditions, the villagers believe that "what had to happen always eventually came to pass." They are "obedient so as not to attract more troubles than necessary." This view holds sway even in the midst of the night's most barbarous events.
The first rule of life, the only one in many cases, was to agree to bear all the burdens that existence visited upon them. They were long-suffering. They were not conquerors. Sometimes, things happened that killed them from within, but they always left it to fate to finish off their bodies. Their lives were not their property.
Ayané finds this view unacceptable. "Between imperialism and fatalism," she thinks, "there had to be a third way, one that would not inflict itself on anyone but which would avoid the lure of submission." Yet that third way is not to be found in Eku. It is also questionable whether that would change the night's events.
The way Miano structures Dark Heart of the Night makes clear that Eku's submissive attitude is a function of fatalism. At the same time, fatalism is not an essential precondition. Move the events to a small unarmed town on another continent and it can be argued that fear of death would lead those people to also accede to the demands of an armed and ruthless militia. Likewise, although set against a background of a fatalistic worldview, avoidance of death plays a large role in the village's attitudes. Is that desire so innate it exists regardless of worldview or is it, in fact, an expression of free will?
This is one of several understated commonalities and changes in the novel. For example, despite their dislike of each other and their disparate viewpoints, Ayané's strength is also seen in the village's most respected woman. In fact, despite the patriarchal hierarchy of the clan, she may actually possess the most power in the village, especially since at the time all but three of the men are living and working far from the village. Likewise, women begin to assert some power on the heels of the brutality. Finally, the book sees Ayané return to the village to participate in its funereal traditions. It remains clear, though, that there is a huge dichotomy between village life and what is going on in country's cities and its politics. As the book concludes, that dichotomy leaves Ayané pondering whether she needs to put her beliefs into action and do what she can for her native country.
Dark Heart of the Night is translated from the French by Tamsin Black. Although it is the first of Miano's works to be translated into English, she has taken issue with aspects of it. In a statement she sent the complete review, complaining of the title. The French title, L'Intérieur de la nuit, literally translates as The interior of the night. Miano says Dark Heart of the Night too closely resembles Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness "and voluntarily sends wrong messages." She is more critical of a foreword to the book, written by Terese Svoboda, calling it "full of lies" and she has asked the University of Nebraska Press to withdraw it. (I don't read prefatory material to translated literature as past experience shows it often is aimed at shaping how a work should be viewed. I read it after completing the book only because of Miano's complaints and the areas of disagreement involve both fact and opinion.)
Given the nature of the issues Miano raises, it is unlikely she is trying to generate "controversy" to draw attention to the book. While not a perfect work, the book deserves the wider audience an English translation can bring. Some may find a touch of contradiction in Dark Heart of the Night while others may find its sense of anger and exasperation directed at the wrong people. Still, it provides a unique look at fatalism in post-colonial Africa and its impact in the conflict — and occasional commonality — between modern and traditional life there.