I’ve talked before about the good work And Other Stories do, so I won’t go into much background about this novel, other than I can’t imagine any other publisher in the English-speaking world taking a gamble on a novel from an Equatorial Guinean writer who spends a lot of his time running away from his own government. So it’s nice that I can read this from the comfort of my Sydney home.
A young boy growing up on an island off the coast of west Africa tells us the story of life on his Atlantic Ocean island. His meandering story takes us from his own family—he lives with his mothers, siblings and grandfather—right around the tiny island populated by a huge cast of characters. Though only a child, he sees the darkness in the island lifestyle, and shows us that a beautiful beach and ocean are not enough to sustain life.
I don’t need to add to the praise for Jethro Soutar, intrepid translator of this novel (you can see why here), but I will anyway. Throughout By Night, the voice of the narrator never wavers. Not once does it slip. And it’s a unique voice—both childish and reflective, laser-sharp in its recollection of detail while at the same time chasing tangents to their logical end. These contradictions are inextricably bound up in the story, and while it took Ávila Laurel to write it in Spanish, it took Soutar to give chumps like me the chance to read it.
The best science fiction writers are the ones who can conjure up a world so far removed from our own while still ensuring it is believable. And as an Australian reader, life on a remote island of the coast of west Africa is perhaps as far removed as it is possible to get while remaining on Earth. The stories feel at once foreign and familiar. Foreign, because this is a culture the world has never experience before. But as with all great authors, Ávila Laurel makes these cultural unfamiliarities familiar by reminding us that the results of these events are human in their nature. Intensely human situations are vividly brought to life: a child horrified by the uncovering of a dark family secret; a boy holding on to a tree branch for dear life, terrified he will fall; a woman desperately clinging to a lie to ensure her child is treated as it should be.
What ties all these disparate stories together, though, is the growing sense of unease that accompanies each one. While most start out fairly innocently, it rapidly becomes clear that, beneath the surface, the lives of these people are far from ideal. In particular, the women in these stories seem to always come off second-best: perhaps the most harrowing, and yet strangely affecting, story is the final one. A woman who had a child with a visiting white trader suddenly finds her son ill. To save him, she asks a man with a canoe to take her to the main village, an arduous journey that requires a great deal of effort on his part. But he agrees, and they set out. This is harrowing enough in itself, but Avila Laurel reminds us that nothing is ever that simple, and the twist is both shocking and perfectly understandable.
This is not a novel about one person, or even about one story. By Night the Mountain Burns is an introduction to another place, a community and culture where men fish during the day, where women work the fields, where the outside influence of white people and colonialism remains fragile. By Night the Mountain Burns is a novel to be read not just by people looking to tick a country off their list, but anyone interested in what happens to people and communities under immense pressure just to survive.