‘By Night the Mountain Burns’ by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel is the first novel by an author from Equatorial Guinea to be longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It is also only the second book from the country ever to be translated into English and recounts the narrator’s childhood memories of living on the small remote island of Annobón in the South Atlantic Ocean where the inhabitants deal with various crises including a bush fire and a cholera epidemic.
‘By Night the Mountain Burns’ was translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar who wrote an excellent article in The Guardian last year about the challenges of working on the book in the context of Ávila Laurel’s exile to Barcelona in 2011 following a hunger strike in protest against the dictatorial government. He writes that “It’s the translator’s job to translate a book’s words, but of course you also have to translate cultures.” Having known nothing at all about Annobón before reading ‘By Night the Mountain Burns’ with no preconceptions about what to expect, Soutar has certainly created a vivid portrait of the island itself as well as the customs, rituals and superstitions of the small community who live there. Much like ‘In the Beginning Was the Sea‘ by Tomás González , the remoteness and isolation of the island – both geographically and politically – is well conveyed through the writing.
The prose of ‘By Night the Mountain Burns’ is based on the oral tradition of storytelling. There is no real beginning, middle or end to the plot and the names of the narrator and most of the characters are not given. The prose features a great deal of repetition, rhetorical questions and meandering through different events with few breaks in the text in keeping with the narrator’s conversational tone. While I found this quite laboured at some points and it took a while for me to get used to the rhythm of the writing, the translation appears to maintain the authenticity of the oral tradition style very well.
Based on what I’ve read so far and from what I’ve heard about the other books longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, ‘By Night the Mountain Burns’ really stands out for its style of prose and the author’s fascinating back story. I’m not sure if the novelty of these aspects alone will necessarily mean it is strong enough to be shortlisted but regardless of whether or not it progresses any further with the Prize, it is certainly an achievement that the book exists at all.