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The Power of Empathy in “When I Sing, Mountains Dance”

The Power of Empathy in “When I Sing, Mountains Dance”

  • A review of Irene Solà's new book, "When I Sing, Mountains Dance."

Irene Solà is an award-winning Catalan poet, novelist, and visual artist who won the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature for her second novel, When I Sing, Mountains Dance. Translated by Mara Faye Lethem, When I Sing, Mountains Dance depicts the griefs and joys of one human family against the vibrant backdrop of the Pyrenees mountains where they live. With its crisp prose, compassionate eye, and emotional precision, Solà’s novel pays tribute to the interconnectedness of the natural world. When I Sing, Mountains Dance illustrates that when we step back to see those connections, our own lives take on greater meaning.

Solà’s human characters are entwined with the mountains from birth, their lives shaped by losses inflicted by and in the natural world. When lightning strikes and kills farmer poet Domènec, his widow, Sió, and two children, Hilari and Mia, mourn his death. Years later, when Hilari is killed in a hunting accident in the forest by his best friend, Jaume, Mia mourns her brother’s death. But she also mourns her budding relationship with Jaume, who doesn’t come back to see her after he is released from prison. Each member of Domènec’s family wrestles with love and grief within the wild Pyrenees mountains.

But Solà encourages us to view the world from more than just a human perspective. When I Sing, Mountains Dance assumes a different point of view in every chapter. Not only do we settle into first-person narration by Hilari, Mia, and Jaume, but we also peer out from the perspective of a thunderstorm, the ghosts of seventeenth-century witches, the mountains themselves, black chanterelle mushrooms, and the roebuck fawn being hunted in the forest. And we spend as much time with the mushrooms as we do with the humans—no single perspective claims more space because they are all equally important. Solà invites us to settle into each perspective—and, in doing so, to feel as much sorrow for the frightened fawn skittering away from the gunshot as we do for Hilari’s death.

The invitation to view the world from sky and soil creates an opportunity to practice empathy. Solà also encourages temporal empathy by zooming in and panning out, challenging human conceptions of time. A series of sketches depicts the earth’s crust shifting over millions of years to form the mountains where Domènec’s family makes their home. The Pyrenees mountains represent millions of years of geological change on a scale that makes the lifespan of a human seem short by comparison. Similarly, the fleeting existence of snow contrasts the life of a roebuck fawn, or the ghosts of seventeenth-century witches who linger on the mountain. Layering drastically different time scales reminds us that the human lives at the center of When I Sing, Mountains Dance form just one layer of a stratum of time. Life has existed long before us and will long after. Compared to the constancy of the mountains, human civilization is brief as a thunderstorm. And compared to the chanterelle’s, a human life is long.

Realizing humans are just one part of a complex system eases the sting of death. After the lightning strike kills Domènec, the thunderstorm reflects that “we’d rained just enough to kill a man and a handful of snails. We’d barely knocked down any nests and hadn’t flooded a single field.” The storm’s reflection reframes an event that caused suffering for Domènec’s family. From the storm’s perspective, there was little damage done—many more lives could have been lost. But for Sió and her now-fatherless children, the storm brought grief and upheaval. These contrasting perspectives suggest there is hope in the survival of birds’ nests and flora still growing in the fields, even when we mourn death. Life continues after, and, when it’s time to go, more life will blossom to take our place.

Solà’s kaleidoscopic technique offers perspective on Sió’s grief but does not diminish it. When I Sing, Mountains Dance triumphs because Solà gives voice to many perspectives and, in doing so, infuses the human characters’ experiences with greater poignancy. Mia’s sorrow when her lover, Jaume, doesn’t come back echoes through to the final pages of the novel. And Jaume’s eventual plea for forgiveness is moving because his life plays out in connection with Mia’s, and with the roebuck deer he hits on the way to see her. Compassion can be synergistic. Seeing other points of view enhances our ability to feel sorrow and joy for the roebuck fawn, the grounded nest, the flooded fields, and other humans crisscrossing our lives for myriad reasons. When we realize that we live as part of a much larger system, we deepen our capacity for healing.

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In When I Sing, Mountains Dance, Solà depicts the natural world as a complex system of relationships that shapes human lives. Within that system, all beings are important, the mushroom as much as the man. When we resist myopia by stepping back—by crouching low to the ground and stretching up to the sky—we adopt a more expansive view. That view enables us to see our responsibility to the landscapes where we live. When we help, rather than hurt, we can echo joy and care across the natural world. After all, when we sing, the mountains dance.

When I Sing, Mountains Dance
By Irene Solà
Graywolf Press
Published March 15, 2022

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