I’ve been excited to read By Night the Mountain Burns ever since the author (at least I think it was the author) left a comment on my blog that it would be coming out in English. After the release date, I checked the catalog at my library and it said that a copy of the book was on order. So I waited. And waited some more. And this spring it still wasn’t available.
So, when I was in London and visiting the amazing Daunt Books (The shelves are organized by geography! So full of books I want to read!) and was limiting myself to buying just one book, this is the one I bought.
Like Stone in a Landslide, it is the narrative voice that is really memorable about By Night the Mountain Burns. The narrator is telling the story of his childhood on Annobon, a remote island that is part of Equatorial Guinea. I was fascinated by the practical details in his description of life there, particularly how the complete absence of artificial light affects so many aspects of life.
Juan Tomas Avila Laurel is a political activist who has criticized the government of Equatorial Guinea (which is by all accounts terrible), and is now living in exile in Spain. The Guardian has an article by Jethro Soutar, the translator of By Night the Mountain Burns, telling how the author went underground, under the treat of arrest for planning a protest, during the process of translation. So I was expecting the book to be overtly political, but in fact any political commentary is much more subtle.
For example, one theme of the book is the dwindling of supplies from the outside world because the ships that used to come no longer do. But there is never any understanding why. From the Guardian article, I understand that a regime change in the country led to the island being ostracized and isolated. This and other mysteries might be clearer to readers in Equatorial Guinea and perhaps the vagueness was in part out of political necessity.
The idea is that the narrator is telling his story orally, which led to a couple of literary devices that annoyed me as a reader. There is a good deal of repetition in the book, reflecting the oral storytelling style and also serving to emphasize what events made the most impression on the narrator. The repetition was fine, but it bugged me that the narrator would repeatedly say things like, “Maybe I’ve told you this before” or “Have I told you this already?” The other thing that bothered me is perhaps a bit of a spoiler or maybe an anti-spoiler, but I would have liked to have known in advance, so I’ll go ahead and comment on it. There was that there was a particular piece of information which the narrator kept saying that he would tell later, before eventually saying, nope, never mind, I decided not to tell you. I can sort of understand the purpose of these things, but I found them annoying, nonetheless.
If you get past those quirks though (and maybe it’s just me, maybe they wouldn’t bother you at all), it’s a story well worth reading.
This review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also has an interesting perspective on the book.
By Night the Mountain Burns, which was translated from Spanish, is also part of my project for Kinna Reads’ Africa Reading Challenge in which I am planning to read African books which were originally written in at least five different languages this year.