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Monday, 23 March 2015

By Night The Mountain Burns - Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar) - 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Ordinarily I wouldn’t start a literature review with a geography lesson, however ordinarily I wouldn’t be reading a book from Equatorial Guinea, and not even mainland Africa here, but a novel set on the island of Annobon. Equatorial Guinea is a small West Cost nation in Africa and the island of Annobon is a miniscule 17.5 square kilometres or 6.4kms long by 3.2kms wide (I know the maths doesn’t add up, but then again an island isn’t a square!!!) According to our narrator “…it is located just below the equator. If I’d studied geography, I’d give degrees of latitude and longitude, so that you might look the island up on a map,” however in our work the island isn’t actually named, you need to read the coverslip or do a little more research on Juan Tomas Avila Laurel. His parents being teachers on Annobon, where he spent his primary school years.

He is a writer who staged a week-long hunger strike in protest against Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s regime (the President since 1979). Obiang ousted his uncle in a military coup in August 1979, has been accused of gathering $700 million in US bank accounts, human rights abuses and even cannibalism. Juan Tomas Avila Laurel now lives in exile in Barcelona (writing in his native Spanish tongue).

When a wicked thing happens in a village, its negative consequences scatter into the air and are left hanging until a ceremony of purification is performed.

Our novel opens with an introduction of the canoe making ceremony (or hauling song) and the island itself, a mere sliver, the whole population is back and they fish by hand far away at sea, from these canoes. Ticks are removed from feet with sharp fish bones. Our nameless narrator live in one of the two double storey houses on the island, built to face away from the sea and towards the mountain “El Pico del Fuego”. A mountain which his grandfather watches all day long, never leaving his second storey room.

Does anyone know how you start when making a canoe? First you select the tree, and if it’s not your tree but a tree on a woman’s plantation, women being the ones who farm on the island, you go and speak to her. You might be lucky and she’s a widow or has no husband, or she has one but he’s away. Or you might be unlucky and she has sons who are growing up, and she knows that one say the tree will make a good canoe for the sons, when they’re old enough to go out fishing and transport things about the island. 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.

This is a boy’s tale, or rather the reflections of an old man of his time as a boy. It expsoes the island’s rituals, fears, sexist ways (in our world), however these are simple times where living off the land and the sea are the keys to existence. The visitors are virtually non-existent, only when the men (and at times the women, with dire consequences) go out and meet poaching fishing boats:

With the shortage of everything really squeezing at our throats, a boat appeared off the coast, and it was so close that we could tell it was taking fish from our larder, our sea. And so out we went, for we had something to say about this. But it turned out to be a boat from a friendly nation, stealing fish because it knew our island belonged to no one. Or rather that it belonged to us, but that we had no control over it. And we didn’t say anything about what they were doing, for every man’s conscience is his own, but we gave them a list of things we needed. This was it: soap, kerosene, matches and food. We didn’t ask for clothing because there was no need to say we lacked things to wear. But do you know what those men gave us? Cigarettes and fish. SO many they wouldn’t fit in the canoes our mean had done out to the boat in. Can you believe it? They gave us cigarettes and fish. It was therefore clear that the owners of the boat from the friendly nation knew the fish were ours and wished to share them with us. And what about the tobacco? Our men had an unhealthy yearning for it, because for a long time they’d been reduced to smoking papaya leaves. So the men came back from the boat and no one can say things weren’t shared out evenly: fish for the women, tobacco for the men. In fact hardly any women on the island smoked, though a few of the older ones did something similar, chewing it and stuffing it in their gums. But only a few of them, and they never used it as snuff.

Written with a childlike innocence but containing a wealth of information and childhood memories, this, at time repetitive, tale gives us a strong sense of place and culture. A replication of the strong history of oral storytelling you are drawn into our narrator’s story as though you were sitting on his porch (you never go to the sea side at night).

Our young boy tells the island’s history, with the grandfather figure not too far away. Raised in a household of women (excluding the reclusive grandfather) “there were no daddies to sleep with the mummies where we lived”, this is also a story of a young boy yearning to be the “man” of the house, make canoes and fish.

The mountain in our story of course catches fire (as the title and cover art would suggest), due to the inattention of two sisters attempting to burn down a large tree. Their mother is apparently a “she-devil”, a woman who can’t control her temperature at night and who needs to bathe in the sea. When the most senior man on the island falls to his death whilst collecting palm oil, the “she-devil” is blamed and beaten to death with sticks.

This is of course a tribal tale, however one that puts a mirror on the innocence of childhood, the curiosity about death, the confusion about “adult matters” and the lack of knowledge about more serious matters (for example, the outbreak of cholera on the island).

As somebody who has recently had exposure to living in remote communities it was a revelation to pick up a story of this kind, to find a tale from a miniscule place on our planet is startling indeed. To have made the Independent Foreign Fiction Longlist is an achievement in itself, the romance of being from such a remote place may push it further along the prize journey, purely as a curiosity, however I’m thinking a fall at the first hurdle in in store.

Thanks to And Other Stories for their independent work which brings novels such as this to the English speaking world, I’m quite proud to say my name is in the credits at the end of the book as a small contributor in getting it to print (that in no way influences my review here, it possibly makes me even more critical as my own hard earned is on the line!!!)

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Unknown said...

Nice review Tony. I only recently discovered And Other Stories with Alphabet of Birds in Jauary but I subscribed immediately. It is great to see them make the list (and also for the author who has faced serious political threat).

Unknown said...

Linda campaña está haciendo el caballero a nu libro, creyendo, con evidente mala fe, que la va a perjudicar. Ya verás!