Saturday, April 4, 2015

By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated by Jethro Soutar

Source: Goodreads
By Night the Mountain Burns
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
Translated by Jethro Soutar (from Spanish)
2014, I read ebook version
288 pages, oral history, ethnography, tragedy

Told in the style of an oral history, a man from a small island near Africa recounts stories of his childhood, especially a series of terrible events that happened during a few years. These include a major fire, famine, shortages due to lack of trade, an epidemic, and the murder of a woman accused of being a witch. He focuses on the impact all of these events had upon life on the island and, in so doing, provides a detailed ethnographic description of the island's population.

An important character is the narrator's silent grandfather, who never leaves the second floor of their house and who barely speaks to anyone. This mysterious grandfather spends all of his time sitting on the balcony and staring at the island's mountain, which is even stranger since the sea (which is very important in this society) is nearby and in the opposite direction.

I did not know that Equatorial Guinea is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. I'm happy that & Other Stories Press decided to publish this novel to give international exposure to one of Equatorial Guinea's major writers.

Ethnography of an Island

This novel's frame story is that a researcher has come to record oral histories from the island's inhabitants. It is, therefore, appropriate that the most interesting parts of the book are the ethnographic details from this small island in the Atlantic Ocean. 

The narrator repeatedly avows that he does not know what the name of his island is or where it's located; he has never traveled away from it, so these details don't matter to him. Because of this, I was confused about whether this is a real island, or one that was a product of the author's imagination. Doing a bit of research on the publisher's website, I learned that the novel is based on the author's childhood growing up on Annobón, a remote island far away from the coast and the rest of the country (see this map to understand exactly how remote). The real Annobón has an area of 6 3/4 square miles and is the remains of an extinct volcano. It is 220 miles from the mainland of Africa! 

What an interesting setting for a novel! 

Much of the ethnographic details focus on the island's unique culture, which is adapted to living on such a remote, tiny piece of land. The population was very small; the women owned farms and the men fished in canoes. Based on the time of year, the women moved around the island to tend to different crops. The men were expected to catch enough fish to support the women and children of the household. This is one of the ways men gained prestige. The narrator's family was unlucky in that the only adult male in the house was the silent grandfather, who did not go fishing and did not own a canoe. 

The islanders lived a mostly self-sufficient life, but there were a few things that they needed from outside: kerosene, matches, etc. To get these trade goods, they would negotiate with foreigners whenever a ship anchored near the island to fish. But the ships were infrequent, resulting in shortages. When there was also a drought or other disaster that reduced the crops the shortages became very severe. 

My favorite part of this ethnographic description is when we learn about how canoes were made. (I'm a big fan of handicrafts and traditional artistry.) After negotiating for a tree, the man who needs the canoe cuts it down and then calls upon one of the "maestros," men with expertise in canoe building, who will then supervise the creation from start-finish. It's a brilliantly detailed look at one of the main social organizations and events on this small island. 

Disaster at Close Range

Living on a tiny, remote island means that when disaster strikes no one can escape. The entire population is affected. This is what happens when an accidental fire burns through a large number of fields: most of the people on the island lost crops that they needed to survive. This results in finger-pointing and the public murder of a woman who, as a "witch," is considered to be responsible for the catastrophe. No one had been murdered in such a way on the island before. 

Shortly thereafter, a cholera outbreak has an even more devastating effect on the island. People are placed in isolation so that they can't infect others, but even so some people lose their whole families. There are several funerals per day, no one knows what to do because the doctor dies early in the epidemic, empty houses are boarded shut. Reading this reminded me of the ebola outbreak in West Africa last year, when similar things happened. Ebola was devastating in the countries on the mainland; can you imagine what a similar disease would be like on a small island? A large percentage of the population was killed over the course of a few weeks. 

More than anything else, this novel demonstrates the delicate balance between humans, crops, the ecosystem, and the gods that needs to be maintained in such a small, isolated community. They are on their own in the middle of the sea; it's mostly luck that allows them to survive (and sometimes prosper) in such a hostile environment. 

This is a beautiful novel that provides an intimate introduction to the struggles and pleasures of live on Annobón. However, sometimes the narrator's repetition (it is an oral history, after all) seemed unnecessary and just got in the way of my enjoyment of the book. I am very happy that it was longlisted for the IFFP this year, but I do not expect to see it in the shortlist. 

Further reading: 

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