By night the mountain burns – Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

“Bad news for one family was bad news for the whole island”


Where did I first hear about this book? On Ann Morgan’s wonderful blog: A Year of Reading the World.

A beautiful book that unfurls the remote Atlantic Ocean island of Annóbon page by page. The scenes, sights, smells, struggles and soul of the island fan out via an intricately detailed narration from a child’s perspective. The narration follows a meandering, streamofconciousness, repetitive style to perfectly capture the oral story telling tradition of Annóbon. The stream of consciousness narration brings the childhood voice to the fore, reminiscent of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man. I must confess that my linear literature background made reading this an additional challenge, but not an insurmountable one, and I am so glad I persevered. Ultimately it was such an honour to experience the novel and island life this way.

Daily island life in this novel is disrupted by a series of tragedies; hunger, forest fires, infant death and cholera. These tragedies are an entry point for the reader to gain insight into religion, superstition, relationships, gender, language, remoteness and marginalisation on the island. The explanations and reactions from the islanders to these tragedies reveal a unique blend of Catholicism with indigenous beliefs. Catholic saints are supplicated for forgiveness, whilst gifts are gathered and given to placate the sea king.

Relationships: The most obvious relationships explored are those between children and adults, men and women, the living and the dead. Children and adults tend to interact in a formalised manner, and adults are not questioned or held to account by the younger generation. This is most apparent between the narrator and his grandfather, and serves as a microcosm of the wider adult/youth relationship dynamic. The narrator often rhetorically questions the peculiar and cruel behaviour of adults, with such stunning childlike simplicity it is heartbreaking. An interesting observation; the only adult to be named in the book is Sabina – the woman who sees the dead.

Gender: “Although men usually represent family security on the island, I always felt more secure and connected to the women”.  The gender dynamics are fascinating, and a real indication of how women suffer, and are often used as scapegoats to explain away the island’s tragedies. Women going through the menopause are misunderstood as ‘she-devils’ and one particular woman is accused of having witch like powers leading to a most unfortunate end. Households without an adult male are at an automatic disadvantage, and depend on the mercy and goodwill of others. The recurrent simple childlike questioning and reasoning serve to further amplify the inherent injustice of this.

Language: Language is exposed for its alienating, as opposed to unifying role. The narrator learns to read and write using language and images that have no meaning to him. This reminds us of how overlooked the residents of Annóbon are, and how their marginalisation goes beyond pure geographic remoteness. In a subtle twist, the reader constantly experiences a sense of alienation as the narrator often reminds us that many of the words used in his language simply do not have a translatable equivalent in Spanish or English. “In the language of our island we have two ways of saying ‘the sea'”. I was constantly aware of the fact that I was reading a book that has been translated from Spanish, with the additional layer of the oral  Fá d’Ambô foundation- reading in three parallel lines, or perhaps more appropriately, three intertwined spirals.

“In the language the song is sung, my island’s language, there is no polite form of address”

This was a fascinating read – transported to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with the privilege of peering into Annobón island life. I am grateful for the added obstacle of having to read in a non-linear translation, as it made the book all the more compelling and memorable. The overall tone of the novel challenges the idyllic stereotype of happy-go-lucky paradise island life. In contrast, the young narrator’s continued sense of foreboding and fear illustrate the very real struggles and harshness of remote island living. In spite of this, it is a truly enjoyable and illuminating read that transports and transfixes the reader to a unique volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean. Fellow armchair travellers, grab your canoe, and put this on your to-read list.

More reviews of By Night the Mountain Burns:

Irish Times review: By Night the Mountain Burns, by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

BookBag review: By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel

The Guardian feature: Translating the dangers faced by an author under threat