Having wrapped up the three books I’d previously read and reviewed from the IFFP longlist, it’s time to get my journey on the road properly, and today’s first stop is certainly a fair trip. We’re off to Africa for a story of a childhood a little different to those of most of my readers, a tale that looks at life on a small island with big secrets. Let’s leave the bus at home today – I have a feeling that a canoe will be a lot more useful 🙂
By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel – And Other Stories (translated by Jethro Soutar, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
By Night the Mountain Burns is a short novel in the form of a monologue told by a native of one of Equatorial Guinea’s Atlantic islands. While the place is real, at times it appears more of a lost realm, an island removed from the wider world:
“If I’d studied geography, I’d give degrees of latitude and longitude, so that you might look the island up on a map, or on some other more modern means of looking for things. In any case, I should mention that the island is African, and that the people who live on the island are black, every last one of them. And that it’s surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Totally surrounded. The black people I speak of live on a sliver of land that pokes out of the murky waters.”
(And Other Stories, 2014)
However, despite the odd superstition or two, this is a very real story, one in which an adult looks back at his childhood, explaining how life was lived on the island in times gone by.
The young boy lived in a large house with all of his relatives, and right from the start there are indications that his family is a little different from the others in the ‘big village’. For one thing, there’s the mystery of the absent men. While the island can be matriarchal, with women controlling land and plantations, the men are usually around; however, in the narrator’s extended family, the fathers and uncles have gone away (where, we’re not quite sure). There’s also the small matter of the grandfather, a man who spends his days sitting on the upstairs balcony of a house deliberately built to face away from the sea. Why doesn’t he have a canoe? Why can’t he provide fish for his family? Patience, dear listener – this is a story, and all will be revealed in good time…
While By Night the Mountain Burns is a novel, in style it’s much more similar to an oral recitation, a man simply sitting down and telling the story of his youth. The language is simple, but effective, and the story has many of the features of spoken language, with frequent repetition, tangential anecdotes and pauses to reflect on what has been said. This has much to do with the reason for the narrator’s story, something which isn’t revealed until the end of the novel.
Part of the appeal of the novel is the way in which the narrator (and writer) hides important facts, or rather omits them by accident, leaving the listener (or reader) to fill in the gaps as best they can. The most important of these mysteries concerns the grandfather, an old man who never goes out to sit with the rest of the old men by the beach:
‘Did he not go because he didn’t know the others, didn’t know about the same things? It was possible, and this reinforced my belief that he was an incomer.”
The truth, though has less to do with the grandfather’s origins and more to do with the man himself, a secret the children will eventually uncover when they dare to enter his bedroom…
However, there’s a lot more to the book than the narrator’s personal stories, and one of the major themes of the novel is the difficulty of life on a poor island. Having grown up without luxuries, it takes a while for the narrator to realise that life could be different:
“When the lamp went out for some reason before we’d gone to sleep, it constituted something of an education for me: I started to learn about our life and started to realise that things weren’t the way I’d always seen them. I started to realise that we didn’t have it so good.”
The reality is that the islanders often face a lack of just about everything, from tobacco to medicine, and their supplies are only restocked when fishing boats from the outside world happen to come by. It’s a traditional way of life supplemented by rare treats from the modern world the islanders have never seen.
This mix of the traditional and the modern also extends to culture and religion. While the islanders are devout Catholics, their practices are mixed with superstitious tendencies. There are various ceremonies to protect the fortune of the islanders, ‘bad’ women who bathe naked in the sea, spirits who need to be appeased and saints you need to be introduced to before you can sleep peacefully in their village. It’s not quite Catholicism as most people know it…
What adds an extra dimension to the story, though, are the darker elements the writer introduces. There’s a woman attacked brutally in the street, a cholera outbreak which decimates the islanders, a fire which destroys their crops – all disturbing events on the island idyll. Whether human or natural in nature, on a small island, when trouble erupts, sometimes there is simply nothing that can be done. The narrator’s peaceful tone belies the reality of a life filled with tension.
By Night the Mountain Burns is an excellent story, told in a well-executed style. Soutar’s translation captures the oral style nicely, recreating the narrator’s long yarn with its occasional childish quirk (such as when he talks about ‘the deads’). It’s repetitive at times, deliberately so, something I found a little frustrating at times. On the whole, though, it makes for an effective novel – something very different and definitely worthy of a place on the longlist 🙂
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I’m not quite sure… The charm of the novel is its spoken style and its deliberate repetition and secrecy, but there were times when I would have liked it to move on a little more quickly. I also felt that there was going to be something more involved, especially concerning the narrator’s family, and when the end came, I actually felt as if something was missing. This is a good book, but I’m not convinced it’ll make my personal top six.
Will it make the shortlist?
I think it stands a very good chance. Other reviews have been far more positive than mine (not that mine is negative!), and it’s a charming story which will please the judges. Variety is often important for the shortlist, and having an African novel among the final six would definitely be something they’ll have in mind 😉
After our brief island holiday, it’s time to move on; where next on our global odyssey? Let me see…
Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass ‘Go’. Do not collect 200 Yen.
That doesn’t sound too promising 😦