I picked up ‘By night the Mountain Burns’ last year sometime. I read it recently and was thrilled to discover that it’s on the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015, which rewards both writer and translator. It’s set in the island of Annobón which is part of Equatorial Guinea, a Spanish speaking country in West Africa. To my shame I’d had no idea that there were any former Spanish colonies in Africa and had to get my atlas out to locate both the mainland and the island. I was hoping to learn something about this country, perhaps about the political consequences of colonisation, but also about island culture, its traditions and its ‘folk tales’. The book is an account of all these things, but it is also a story of growing up in great hardship.
The book is narrated by a small boy and is a collection of accounts, anecdotes and memories from his childhood. The beautiful opening sets the lyrical tone of the book, describing the calling song sung by the islanders as they haul their canoes from the plantation, where they have been built, to the sea. Ávila Laurel details the several possible translations of the call, distinguishing his island language from the Spanish, describing the correct intonation and the synchronisation of the call with the heaves required to get this canoe down to the beach. He describes in detail the rituals around finding and felling the tree and the different roles of men and women in the ceremony, evoking the sense of a community working in harmony according to established and accepted traditions. The memories of the song fill the narrator with nostalgia, but also pleasure: ‘as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most beautiful song in the world’.
The narration includes accounts of daily life and survival in this community: the cultivation of cassava in the plantations by the women, the dependence on fishing and therefore the benevolence or not of the sea, family relations in the narrator’s home. Some aspects of the narrator’s own family are mysterious to him- Grandfather’s inactivity, his shadowy past and the unexplained objects in his upstairs room. However Grandfather is not just an object of curiosity for the narrator, but of anger and resentment at his failure to provide for his family by bringing in the fish which the growing children crave. They are reduced to a diet of basic cassava, often without even fish juices, and the detail in which their meagre diet is described betrays the constant presence of hunger in their lives.
The hardship portrayed is not restricted to the narrator. The whole community is affected by fire and illness, with pathetically inadequate medical advice or supplies to deal with either. A list of basics which the islanders desperately need but lack- ‘salt, soap, kerosene, matches’- is repeated through the book like an incantation and it is in search of these that they go out in canoes to the ships on the horizon which are lingering to fish in their waters. One friendly encounter results in some supplies, but also the pregnancy of an islander and this ship, like the rest of them, eventually sails off. I felt that this is an abandoned community. The relics of colonisation in the shape of the Catholic church does little to help: the majority of islanders, including the narrator, dutifully express belief in the Christian Dios, but the narrator’s anger with the Padre’s failure to intervene in what he describes as the most terrible event in the island’s history suggests his faith is shaky and the church’s influence ineffectual.
Despite the toughness of some of the experiences described, I found the narration absolutely compelling, partly due to the oral storytelling style, but also because of the child’s viewpoint. This is impressively sustained throughout the book and consistently and smoothly rendered by the translator, Jethro Soutar. The oral storytelling style successfully draws us in, asking us questions and commenting ‘did I mention that……?’ ‘I’d better explain about…..’ . It flags up in advance stories and explanations to come later to keep our interest. But for me there was another effect of the oral storytelling style, not always adhering to a strictly linear narrative, but returning to events, telling them sometimes from a different viewpoint, sometimes again from the narrator’s point of view: it as if this young boy is worrying about events, chewing over things he doesn’t understand, going back to things to try to make sense of them- as if an expression of his anxiety.
So while the book does tell us about daily life, rituals, beliefs and survival on this remote island, it pulls no punches about the hardship endured by the island population. The writer, Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, is a well known political activist in Equatorial Guinea, his parents came from the island of Annobón, and so we may assume that the stories in the book derive from personal and family experience. The book is a powerful testimony to both the way of life of the community and their ability to endure. Thanks to the publishers andotherstories for bringing this book to us in English.