By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Ávila Laurel
This reads a bit like a short story cycle. An episode swells and lapses, another swells in turn. By Night the Mountain Burns is told orally, through some literate intermediary, from Annobón, a tiny and remote Equatoguinean island. The speaker’s family history stands as surrogate for a people’s history, for a culture cloistered by the Atlantic Ocean. His is a boyhood populated by a grandmother, a silent grandfather and several mothers. Many of the island’s men, his father included, have disappeared across the water.
As a brutal mob assault lapses, a cholera epidemic swells. Island traditions and local lore – canoe building and ‘she-devil’ women – blend with the banality and scarcity of the day-to-day. All are related in the same clear, sparse voice. Ávila Laurel laces ...Burns with repetitions and deferrals, presumably in an attempt to create a more authentic oral style. These can become frustrating, though. A promise to reveal the contents of the grandfather’s room is spun out interminably.
The book’s blurb compares Ávila Laurel to Achebe and García Márquez, which is unfair. There are tinges of magic realism, yes, and the spectre of colonialism whispers throughout, but Ávila Laurel’s prose doesn’t stand up to that sort of hype. Whose could? ...Burns is more intriguing than fascinating. It’s more likely to draw an interested ‘hmm’ than an astonished gasp. It draws plenty of the former, though. [Angus Sutherland]