BY NIGHT THE MOUNTAIN BURNS
Juan Tomas Avila Laurel
Translated by Jethro Soutar
And Other Stories
2008, translation 2014
Ms. Hen happened to read this book because she had read an article about novels with a great sense of place, and this was one of them. And this novel indeed has a wonderful sense of place. Ms. Hen was brought into a world that is completely foreign to her own, an island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, which is based on Annabon, but the name is never mentioned in the novel.
This is an island where a young boy lives in a house with his grandmother and grandfather, several mothers, no fathers and many children. The grandfather is sick, or the boy thinks he might be mad, but it is never explained to the children. On the island, men fish to feed their families. Since there are no men in the house of the narrator capable of fishing, the children go hungry at times. They crave fish because when they eat it, they love it, and they drip the water from the fish on their cassava bread.
Ms. Hen was brought to a world that she knew nothing about, to a timeless place. The novel could have taken place in the 1960s, or it could have been the nineteenth century. There is no technology, and there are no cars, and many of the houses do not have toilets.
There is a lot of discussion of the characters relieving themselves in this novel, more so than in most of the novels Ms. Hen reads. She’s not sure why this is. The people go to the beach at night to move their bowels, and the boys in the house share a bed they wet every night. Ms. Hen thinks this is a strange thing to discuss in a novel, but she realized that the people who live on this island might not have anything else to talk about, and everyone does this, so why not discuss it with each other.
The characters talk a lot with each other about everyone’s business. Every time a ship comes from another nation, men and women go to see if they can give them kerosene, alcohol, needles and things they don’t have. Some women get pregnant by the men on the ships and give birth to white children. They are not ostracized; they carry on with their lives.
Two women who become outcasts burn down the island by mistake and their mother is punished. The narrator doesn’t understand why the woman is tortured, and he has never seen anything so horrible. Life is difficult on the island, but there’s nothing the narrator can do. His main focus is finding food, but he has nobody to teach him to fish, since he does not have a father and his grandfather in incapable.
This novel makes Ms. Hen think of an allegory, but she knows that some of it is probably true. Magic exists on the island; the people believe in she-devils and superstitions that could seem silly to people in the west, but rule the lives of people in Africa. Ms. Hen thinks it’s a patriarchal view that some women could be witches, and not men. Where Ms. Hen lives, no women are accused of witchcraft, because that would be ridiculous. Ms. Hen is not a witch, and she doesn’t know any, and she doesn’t think she will meet any soon.
Even though Ms. Hen is not a witch, she is a hen, and she likes to find hens and chicken in novels. There were a handful of hens in BY NIGHT THE MOUNTAIN BURNS, and Ms. Hen was happy about this. The character complains about the lack of fish he gets to eat and wonders, “And don’t ask me why we didn’t raise hens, goats, or pigs on our island of unknown geographical coordinates.” Ms. Hen wondered this, too. Why should the gathering of food be left to the men? And what if there weren’t men around? Ms. Hen realizes that some things in this world don’t make any sense, but they are that way because that's the way they’ve always been.
Ms. Hen enjoyed this novel, even though it made her sad. BY NIGHT THE MOUNTAIN BURNS is a bittersweet legend about an island trapped in time. Ms. Hen wishes that all the people on the island would have enough fish, and also that they would not be cruel to each other. But that’s the way the whole world should be.