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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dark Heart of the Night

Léonora Miano

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To purchase Dark Heart of the Night

Title: Dark Heart of the Night
Author: Léonora Miano
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 143 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Dark Heart of the Night - US
Dark Heart of the Night - UK
Dark Heart of the Night - Canada
L'intérieur de la nuit - Canada
L'intérieur de la nuit - France
  • French title: L'intérieur de la nuit
  • Translated by Tamsin Black
  • With a Foreword by Terese Svoboda; see also Léonora Miano's comments on the Foreword below. Future editions will apparently not include this Foreword.

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Our Assessment:

B : powerful, but a bit unfocused (and brutal)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 15/9/2005 Thierry Gandillot

  From the Reviews:
  • "Avec L'Intérieur de la nuit, la jeune Camerounaise Léonora Miano signe un roman d'une puissance digne des tragédies grecques antiques." - Thierry Gandillot, L'Express

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The echoes in the title, of Céline's Journey to the End of Night and (at least in English) Conrad's Heart of Darkness, are appropriate for Léonora Miano's Dark Heart of the Night. The novel is set in Mboasu -- a Cameroon stand-in -- in Central Africa, during an unspecified time of rebellion. Most of the action takes place in an out-of-the-way village, Eku, where life has not changed much over the centuries, even as local rule has taken the place of colonial oppression.
       A dubious rebellion festers here in the backcountry. Miano offers few details of the larger picture -- and doesn't need to. As one of the characters explains, the rebels likely would soon sell out anyway:

The new faces in this insurrection were often people of thirty-something years who had been out of work since university. Now, they wanted their share of the cake and were only involved so as to forge a way to the upper echelons. As soon as they got there, they would turn their coats, the way so many others had done.
       Normal village life in Eku is upset by two visits from outside: one is that of Ayané, whose parents lived in Eku but did not live as traditionally as everyone else. Ayané returns to Eku because her mother -- always an outsider in the village -- is dying. A girl who has received some education and sees opportunities for more in France, Ayané is out of place in the village; typically, she arrives without having brought gifts, for example.
       The other outsiders are a group of rebels, who come to demand the young men (and some young women) of the village. Their leader, Isilo -- who styles himself a "bringer of new times" --, comes with his own myths and stories, including the claim that:
The people who came to these equatorial regions were the greatest mystics. They left the tabernacle in central Africa, where the key to the deepest mysteries is kept. Unfortunately, at the time of colonial occupation, African identities were distorted, their spirituality destroyed. The invaders stole all our great totems and shut them up in museums, reducing them to silence. They had the Africans believe that they did not know God and that He could not possibly know about them. They took pains to erase the name that Africans gave Him in their tongue and replaced it with empty syllables.
       But this is little more than a cover-story for these rebels, a unifying myth which they can use as an excuse for their excesses: yes, Dark Heart of the Night is quite explicitly a criticism of pan-Africanism and Négritude -- or rather the uses to which they are far too easily put. Hence also Miano's choice to keep the novel almost entirely on the local level, and from the perspective of the villagers (and the one disengaged outsider, Ayané).
       These rebels are bad, bad people -- this isn't a revolution that just figuratively eats its children ... -- and with horrible ease and indifference they destroy everything that stands in their way. The villagers respond fearfully and passively; there is barely the thought of any resistance. And, so Miano, this will prove fatal:
The sons of Eku did not resist. In two or three generations, the trauma would still be there. It would be raw in the hearts of descendants who would in her it this silent, irrepressible agony. It would be one more inhibition, and no one would ever know what name to give it.
       Ayané is an outsider and little more than an observer; when the rebels come into the town she looks down on the scene from a perch in a tree. While she does not interfere, she is baffled by what unfolds:
A code had been applied, rules obeyed. And her clan -- in other words, her family -- had not flinched. She could not understand this fear of dying, this resignation in the face of brute force.
       She believes that:
Between imperialism and fatalism, there had to be a third way, one that would not inflict itself on anyone but which would avoid the lure of submission.
       It's a lot that Miano wants to convey with her story, and she remains somewhat unsure in her focus, shifting between Ayané -- who cannot belong, no matter what her connection to the village -- and the villagers themselves. The story of Ayané's mother -- also an outsider, but one who had remained in the village and made herself at least a part of life there -- is also a significant one. Meanwhile, the village-men are absent most of the time, leaving the women as the central figures; the teen boy, (briefly) enthralled by the rebels when they first come, is typical of male inadequacy throughout, and it comes as no surprise for another boy to be literally emasculated (as stand-in for the entire village). Typically, too, one woman upsets the natural order by killing her husband out of sheer disgust.
       Echoing Cameroon's infamous 'Hashish Massacre' (which Terese Svoboda mentions in her Foreword), the rebels who come to the village are also drugged-up:
He knew immediately that they had been taking iboga. These men were therefore on the other side of the world, where human consciousness virtually never roamed.
       Their actions are a mix of the coldly calculated and the visceral: the events of Dark Heart of the Night remind of everything from the worst colonial outrages to contemporary child soldier warfare -- as Miano surely also intends (and which is, in part, why she is so careful not to specify the time when these events unfold, which could be at any point in the post-colonial era).
       Miano lashes out as violently as she can against Négritude, the central villain -- this small-time rebel soldier (and his delusions of grandeur) -- reminiscent of any number of African 'leaders', both powerful and small:
Now, they chanted a song made up by Isilo who thought he was the architect of the new world and strove to compose hymns to the glory of Africa. Colonization had deprived Africa of its bearings, so he was going to create others. The continent would become the sun that lit the world simply by story-telling. For, of course, myths were essential to give people an idea of who they were, and this idea would either be the first boundary or the step towards boundlessness. It was so true that the smallest mistake in the choice of stories or in the manner of telling them was always fatal.
       It's intriguing to see a writer so opposed to myth-making; admirably, at least, Miano also does not overly romanticize the simple, tradition-bound common life: she offers little hope for the villagers, who remain too stuck in their ways to confront modernity in all its evil. And even when Ayané returns to Eku a second time, for a second chance, as it were, -- this time appropriately bearing gifts -- things again do not go well.
       All this makes for bleak -- and, in no small part, absolutely horrifying -- reading. The sheer brutality of what happens can be hard to swallow, and it would have been more effective (or excusable) if Miano were more certain in her purposes. As is, the novel sits a bit uneasily between allegory and realism. Miano also undermines her effort in the way she shifts focus between Ayané's life and perspective and village-life.
       An ambitious and intriguing novel, Dark Heart of the Night takes too many different tacks to be completely successful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 February 2010

Léonora Miano: About the Foreword

       Léonora Miano made us aware of her profound disagreement with both the content and the inclusion of the Foreword by Terese Svoboda in the University of Nebraska Press edition of her book; here is her statement on the matter (added 17 March 2010).

       In sub-Saharan Africa, weíre used to be despised by the rest of the world and to be treated as mere animals. I knew, when Líintérieur de la nuit (Dark Heart of the Night) was published, that some would use the novel in order to reinforce their views on Africa and its peoples. Really, I didnít care and still donít care about that. What Iím interested in, is the African point of view on the topics I work on. I think weíve spent too much time hoping for understanding and recognition from people other than ourselves. Itís time we focus on our problems and deal with them, no matter how painful it is. Iím confident in our ability to do so. Iím confident in our desire to no more take lessons in humanity from people who created and used the atomic bomb, and who still have death penalty in their country. Things would be so cool if people could just clean their front door ...
        When University of Nebraska Press bought the rights of the book, I was happy because itís important for me to be translated into English, and to make my work available for the many Africans (and people of African descent as well) who actually speak English. I started to ask myself questions when I saw which title had been chosen for the American translation of Líintérieur de la nuit. Dark Heart of the Night has nothing to do with the original title. It resembles Conradís Heart of Darkness, and voluntarily sends wrong messages. But all right. The contract had been signed, and UN Press could use a title betraying my work without me having a say in this. They could even create that ugly cover if they thought it would help them sell the book. I know nothing about the American taste as far as covers are concerned.
       But now, UN Press also felt entitled to add a foreword. Why not, if the aim was to help the readers know the writer and understand the novel? The problem is that the foreword is full of misleading information. Letís say it frankly, itís full of lies:

       1/ Cameroon does not have the worse human rights record in Africa. We have a lot of issues to face, but our country is not more violent than the USA where people are killed on a daily basis for all kinds of reasons. I donít understand why the author of that foreword, who never bothered to contact me, made up stories like that. She is insulting a country and its people. Cameroonians will certainly not allow it.

       2/ Cameroon is not the setting of the novel which was, as Iíve said it many times, inspired by a documentary that I saw on children at war. We donít have those in Cameroon nowadays, and if we ever had, I never heard about it.

       3/ I discovered the so called "Hashish Massacre" in the foreword. I had never heard of that, even if I knew about the armed conflicts we had in the country during the late fifties, when our people were fighting for their independence.

       4/ I did not leave Cameroon to France to flee from a violent place. I live in France because Iím both selfish and down to earth. France is still the place where you need to be when youíre an African French speaking writer. Itís what allows you to be published and correctly distributed. My fellow Cameroonians donít know the many talented writers who live in the country and whose books are published there. They know me. And Líintérieur de la nuit was awarded the Prize of Cameroonian Excellency in 2007.

       5/ My novel is not a criticism of Negritude or Panafricanism. Iím deeply attached to Negritude whose authors have nurtured and freed my mind. If it was not for what they did, I would not be such a bold and fierce voice. They made me. Isnít it a pity to see that the author of the foreword cannot even write Aimé Césaireís name properly?
       Iím a strong advocate of Panafricanism, which I view as the only way to solve some of our problems. Líintérieur de la nuit deals with fascistic views of the African identity, and this has nothing to do with Negritude or Panafricanism.

       6/ Iíve not just written another novel. Three more have actually been published, in addition with one collection of short stories and a collection of creative non fiction. The latter, entitled Soulfood Equatoriale, is my only book really talking about Cameroon. And you know what? Nobody dies in the book. If the foreword was to be informative, it would have said all this. It would also have said that Líintťrieur de la nuit is part of a trilogy. Even if those novels were written so they could be read separately, they form an ensemble.

       7/ There is only one child killed in Líintérieur de la nuit, and that child is an orphan (it doesnít make it good to kill him, but weíre talking about what is in the novel). I donít understand why the author of the foreword talks about the women whose children are slaughtered. Can the lady actually read? Has she read? I think she must have been given an oral summary of the novel, plus two or three sentences to place here and there. This is not serious.

       Weíve asked UN Press to withdraw the foreword. If they cannot do it because the books are already out, theyíll have to send them with a letter explaining everything Iíve just told you.

- Léonora Miano

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Dark Heart of the Night: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Léonora Miano was born in Cameroon in 1973 and has lived in France since 1991.

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