“Every man on our Atlantic Ocean island has his own canoe, and if he doesn’t have one, a new canoe is brought into the world so that he does, so that nobody on the island has to borrow one from anyone else.”
A detailed account of the traditional construction of a canoe on the tiny island of Annobón, an activity that gathers the resources of the entire community, opens By Night the Mountain Burns by Equatorial Guinean writer and political activist Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel. Immediately we are drawn into an engaging, personal, conversational tale. The narrator is a deeply sensitive, if not well educated, man. His voice is fresh, at times naive, frequently looping back to revisit details, questioning the reader or foreshadowing events but deciding to hold off so that he can best share his childhood experiences, as he remembers them, on this remote island where natural resources are limited, life is difficult.
As a young boy, our narrator, lives in a large home with his grandparents and a number of mothers and siblings. Any fathers have long since disappeared to a land across the ocean, so no necessary distinction is made between birth connections, he sees all of the mothers as belonging to all of the children. His grandmother rules the roost while his grandfather is a curiosity to his many grandchildren. For some reason he has built his house facing the away from the sea and he sits watching the mountain that rises above the town day after day. He does not fish or go down to the beach to visit with the other men. In fact he does not come downstairs at all and the children never see him eat.
For our storyteller, the secrets of his his grandfather and a sense of the danger and misery adults must learn to live with begins to become clearer as a series of devastating events sweep his island community, beginning with a fire that starts on the mountainside destroying plot after plot of precious crops and threatening the town itself. Officially a Catholic community, the roots of superstition, folklore and mythology run deep and are intertwined with Christian saints and celebrations. In the wake of the fire, an especially violent act of retribution is carried out against a local woman assumed to be a she-devil, and then, before the community can heal, a plague of cholera sweeps through exacting a devastating toll on the population. Curiously, in this tale in which most characters remain nameless, every adult who dies is named in in full, and a cluster of crosses are inserted into the text to represent the numbers of dead who now crowd the sole cemetery on the island.
Even without the tragedies that run through the core of this account, daily life on the island is filled with challenges. Shortages of kerosene, among many other provisions – salt, soap, matches, tobacco, spirits, fish hooks, nylon rope, clothing – necessitate a careful rationing of light and flame. As a result, this novel is infused with a haunting darkness that is literal, metaphorical and even lyrical. Night brings both security and vulnerability. But moonlit nights are seen as even more threatening:
“… on moonlight nights we felt exposed, for the moon lit up the whole village and advertised our helplessness. I always felt that moonlight nights revealed our skeletons, our defects.”
Magical and evocative in the telling, mixing childhood wonder with reflective adult wisdom, Ávila Laurel introduces a place few will likely have heard of – the island where he grew up. He has been compared to Achebe and Marquez among others, but his account has a much more contemporary edge. When his character speaks of evil on the island, it is difficult not to think of the very brutal reality of the extreme poverty and social inequity that exist in his country as a whole, despite great resource wealth. Rooted in traditional story telling, this is a story for our modern times. It is exactly the type of important story that literature in translation should be bringing to a wider audience and a clear example of the vital role that independent publishers like And Other Stories play in this regard.
Finally, Jethro Soutar’s translation from the original Spanish is fluid, maintaining difficulties that the narrator, who is sharing his tale in Spanish, has finding words to express what Spanish cannot capture of his native island language. The quirks and qualities of his oral account are intact, the humour and insight shine through. Quite an accomplishment given that Ávila Laurel’s involvement in a hunger strike against the government of Equatorial Guinea that led to his ultimate exile to Spain added challenges to the communication between translator and author during the translation process.
International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: By Night The Mountain Burns is the first long listed title for And Other Stories, and I confess my bias in that I have developed a great affection for this publisher so I am thrilled. I had in fact just purchased this title along with several others and it was sitting at the very top of my TBR list so it was a happy coincidence that it was selected.