By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel
|By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Patricia Duffaud|
|Summary: An outstanding novel based on the author’s memories of growing up in Equatorial Guinea.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 275||Date: November 2014|
|Publisher: And Other Stories|
|External links: Author's website|
Shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015
Sometimes a novel will startle because it tackles a topic totally unknown to us or tells us of lives previously un-imagined. This is the case with By Night the Mountain Burns. However, what is most remarkable about Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s novel is how easy it is to slip into the story of a child growing up on an isolated island in Equatorial Guinea. We are not reading about mysterious 'others'. We’re reading about people like ourselves, who live in a different place which has its own constraints – namely poverty and isolation.
The narrator lives with his siblings, his mothers and a grandmother. There is only one man in the household, a silent grandfather who sits at his balcony all day facing the mountain. The grandfather doesn’t take part in the life of the village, thus depriving the family of the fish which young fishermen returning from their day at sea give to the older men, a gesture that is half charitable, half respectful. The child narrator is fascinated by this strange man who is unlike any other adult he knows.
From the start, the characters are strongly defined so that it is the enigma of who this silent man is, what drives him, that keeps the reader interested, rather than a cruder desire to know what happens next.
Similarly, the narrator’s concerns become our own. We can actually taste the dry bread that the children dip in a mix of salt and chili to pretend it’s fish, on the many days when there is nothing else to eat. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s narrative is crystal clear and deceptively simple, with frequent playful reminders of facts we already know, a technique reminiscent of the oral tradition. The novel starts off with the traditional chant the villagers use when a new canoe is being built. The tale of how they build their canoes (it involves a large number of men dragging a tree-trunk across a rocky, uneven terrain out to the beach) is told over eleven pages and is unwaveringly fascinating.
It takes us some time to realise that all is not idyllic on the island, and the readers’ growing awareness matches that of the child narrator. As he grows older he becomes conscious of the desperate shortages suffered by the adults around him. They lack basics such as soap, kerosene and food. Cigarettes are also highly prized and become a currency in their own right when the villagers run out of them. In a vivid image, all that is left is the smell of tobacco lingering in a strongbox and on hanging clothes.
Terrible events soon start happening. As the islanders are superstitious, they try and give explanations to these catastrophes; sometimes the superstitions themselves will cause the barbaric events. An anthropologist would have fun cataloguing these beliefs. Here, they are told simply by someone who grew up with these traditions. They involve ostracising older women who get 'the heats' and locking children inside when a funeral takes place in case they come into contact with the funeral air, 'the air of the dead'. The child proves to have a burgeoning social conscience as he questions some of the things he sees; in particular, he wonders why the priest does so little to try and prevent a horrific event.
Reading this book, it’s hard not to feel the excitement that comes with discovering a great author; the rare exhilaration that strikes once every few hundred books, amid the indifferent, the simply good or the cleverly fashionable. It raises so many issues, both political and economic, caused by the dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea, that it attracts attention for its scope alone. The story transcends the small island and its protagonists. It is the classic and ever tragic tale of a wealthy and repressive elite keeping its subjects in poverty and isolation.
It is the perfectly pitched tone, however, and the simplicity of the recounting that make it a truly polished work. The writer has excised anger and moralising from his writing and his craft is neatly at work in the background, leaving the illusion of a story that weaves itself as it goes along. The result is a luminous tapestry of people reacting in different ways to the assaults of natural catastrophes, accidents and economic hardship.
This is the first book by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel to have been translated into English. Jethro Soutar has done an exquisite job, in particular in rendering the rhythm of the writing. It is to be hoped that he will also translate the author’s other works.
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel has been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Chinua Achebe so do have a look atThe Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe
You can read more book reviews or buy By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel at Amazon.com.
By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2014.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.