‘By Night the Mountain Burns’ by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

By Night The Mountain Burns book cover imageProving that often adversity can produce great literature, Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel was born in Equatorial Guinea and his parents came from the remote Annobón Islands, miles off shore which was, then and now, not a great place to grow up. By Night the Mountain Burns, though fictional, is clearly based on the author’s own experiences. The un-named narrator is recollecting his childhood there and opening up to the reader the conventions, taboos and cultural practices of islanders who seldom saw anyone from the outside world apart from the local priest. And that priest used the Latin liturgy which was wholly unintelligible to the native population.

Like many great books of this genre, we are privileged to see a culture through the innocent eyes of a youngster as he grows up. The insights introduce us to the life, the superstitions and the curious (to Western eyes) customs of this tiny island in the Gulf of Guinea. The language and the perspective on that life seem to be a faithful rendition of the mind-set and thought processes of the youngster who must, it seems, have subsequently left the island.

In the well-judged and poetic translation by Jethro Soutar, English speakers can begin to appreciate how the world seems from what ought to be, but isn’t, an island paradise.

What we know about the author is that he tried to be active politically against the country’s long-standing dictatorship under President Obiang who has sold permissions to allow the dumping of all kinds of toxic wastes on Annobón. Now Ávila Laurel lives in Barcelona and as well as being a novelist is an active blogger against the regime in Equatorial Guinea.

The publishers, & Other Stories, continue to distinguish themselves for the eclectic selection of literature from other countries that English speakers do not read enough of. They have been supported in this case by English PEN as part of its on-going (indeed, never-ending) battle against the persecution and imprisonment of writers for expressing their views. You can lend your support by buying and reading this excellent novel.

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