In an Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist dominated by European (one might even say German) literature, Juan Tomas Avila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns offers something completely different. Laurel is a writer from Equatorial Guinea who now lives in Spain, and this is his first appearance in English, ably translated by Jethro Soutar. Soutar has spoken about how, although a translator’s job is to translate the book’s words, you also have to translate cultures, and this is particularly important when the novel is primarily designed to convey a way of life.
By Night the Mountain Burns is set on what the narrator calls “Our Atlantic Ocean island”, Annobon, as he recounts his memories of childhood. The island is particularly isolated, with only two houses over a storey high, and two public buildings – the vidjil where the men gather, and the Church. The novel is written in the style of oral literature. This is evident not only in the way the narrator addresses the reader, but in the frequent repetitions and reminders:
“I’ve already talked about my house and where it is located. I said how you could hear the waves breaking on the shore at night and that you could sense the dangers that might emerge from the sea.”
However, this is not oral literature such as might be told on the island as it is clearly aimed at a foreign audience:
“Like all the inhabitants of out Atlantic Ocean island, we lived in the big village during the rainy season, and went to the settlement in the dry season, to eat whatever we could find there.”
The story, we are told, is the result of “white people” coming to the island to “recover our oral storytelling tradition” – presumably a criticism of the romantic expectations of Europeans. The island doesn’t so much have an oral storytelling tradition as a mishmash of superstitions and imported Catholic beliefs. The narrator’s childhood reveals a life of hardship where death is never far away, a story he tells with an unresolved ignorance that’s best exemplified when he talks of his grandfather.
The novel opens with a description of his grandfather’s strange behaviour. He never leaves the top story of their house, a house he had built next to the sea but facing away from it:
“I never saw my grandfather come downstairs and I never saw him eat, either.”
Laurel uses the oral nature of the story to stretch out the mystery, saying on page 43, after he and his siblings visit their grandfather’s room on a rare occasion when he is not there, “What did we see in that room? Before I say…”, only to still be promising a revelation on page 79:
“And like I said, I’ll talk about what was in his room later, when it’s time to talk about him again.”
If you are expecting the novel to climax in an explanation, you will be disappointed: Laurel’s intention seems to be to demonstrate not so much the unknowable nature of the grandfather, but the limited experience of life on the island which makes comprehension of difference difficult.
Laurel can certainly not be accused of painting a romantic picture of life on the island. Some of the most memorable sections of the narrative are the outbreak of cholera and the scene where a woman is beaten to death, despite appealing to the priest for help. In the latter, the circuitous nature of the storytelling works well: the incident is described as seen, and then later we learn what led up to it.
By Night the Mountain Burns is what might be termed anthropological literature, the primary purpose being to transport the reader to an alien culture. Initially, I found the absence of both plot and character as we normally understand them frustrating, but on consideration, I feel that Laurel is deliberately undermining these expectations to convey the nature of life on the island. In this sense the novel’s form exactly matches its subject.