Country Focus: Equatorial Guinea (Guinea ecuatorial/Ginee equatoriale in Spanish; it is the only African country in which Spanish is the official language)
By Night the Mountain Burns
By Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
Translated by Jethro Soutar
Originally published in Spain by Calambur Editorial as Arde el monte de noche, 2008.
My edition: & Other Stories, 2014
About the author: Ávila Laurel, a professional nurse, is also Equatorial Guinea’s most famous author. His outspoken criticism of President Obiang’s 30+ year dictatorship led to the author’s exile in 2011. Ávila Laurel currently resides in Barcelona, Spain. He based By Night the Mountain Burns on memories of his childhood home, Annobón Island.
The gist of By Night the Mountain Burns is this: When his strange and silent grandfather uncharacteristically leaves the house—the old man rarely even leaves his room—to attend a funeral, the grandson sneaks into the forbidden bedroom and discovers a shocking secret. Looking back on that day, the boy wonders if his grandfather’s startling departure was a sign of the bad luck to come: a devastating fire; a brutal murder; and a cholera epidemic.
This unnamed boy, the book’s first person narrator, spills out his story while barely taking a breath. In 275 pages there are no chapter breaks; even paragraph breaks average only once per page. Much of what he says is repetitive, which means that the story doesn’t proceed linearly so much as it doubles back on itself. Perhaps he keeps rehashing all of these events in order to get a handle on what happened; in essence he’s chewing the cud of his memories. Ávila Laurel has chosen an unusual style, one that merits more than just one reading.
That is, of course, if you can bear re-reading the unending misery that befalls these unfortunate islanders. Ávila Laurel is no romantic, and his protagonist lives and breathes the ugly realities of poverty, the remoteness of his home, the fallacy of superstition, and the uselessness of the colonial Catholic priest. I believe that By Night the Mountain Burns is ultimately an acknowledgement of people who carry on with their lives under circumstances that defy belief, as well an indictment of those who take advantage of their vulnerability, or who might imagine their lives as idyllic.
The dark? We always thought something dangerous was lurking in the dark. Some of the littler children cried as soon as darkness fell. They screamed as if they had been bitten. Bitten by the darkness. They felt they were in danger and they asked, they screamed, for the light to come back. And although we were afraid of the dark, we didn’t like the excessive light of the full moon either. As I’ve already said, on moonlight nights you felt too exposed. Things could see you from far away. So with the dark, you couldn’t see the danger, but with the moonlight you exposed yourself to the danger. Everything on the island brought fear. To be in the dark is to turn your back on life, for I don’t think anyone can really understand life in all its detail if kept in the dark. It’s like eating in the dark; you never get full, for you lose track of what’s on your plate. I think that the darkness in a person’s life is the darkest thing about living in hardship.