Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel


Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel was born in 1966 in Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country. His parents were from the remote Annobón Island, off the African coast. His books include the novel Avión de Ricos, Ladrón De Cerdos (The Pig Thief And The Rich Man’s Aeroplane) and the short story collection Cuentos Crudos (Raw Tales). His Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-shortlisted novel By Night The Mountain Burns (Arde El Monte De Noche) was based on his memories of growing up on Annobón.

Ávila Laurel has been a constant thorn in the side of his country’s long-standing dictatorial government. A nurse by profession, for many years he was one of the best known Equatorial Guinean writers not to have opted to live in exile. But, in 2011, after a week-long hunger strike in protest against Obiang’s regime, timed to coincide with the President of Spain’s visit to Equatorial Guinea, Ávila Laurel moved to Barcelona. He writes across all media, in particular as a blogger, essayist and novelist.

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By Night the Mountain Burns

By Night the M B front cover CMYK

More Information

  • Translated by Jethro Soutar.
  • Read about Ávila Laurel’s hunger strike on the Guardian website here.
  • Read an interview with Ávila Laurel in the Irish Times.
  • Read Ávila Laurel’s blog (in Spanish) here.

Praise for Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel and By Night the Mountain Burns

  • ‘As a person, Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel is gentle, open and funny. As a voice, he is brave, angry, uncompromising. Here is the voice of someone who has courted and suffered persecution for the sake of a better world. How will he be remembered in the end – as revolutionary or martyr? Juan Tomás is not likely to disappear quietly.’ William T Vollmann, author of Europe Central 
  • ‘Here a delightfully candid, deceptively sober narrative voice weaves brief histories of a collective existence shaped by living on the shores of a sea that does not (or will not?) provide sufficient sustenance.’ Helen Oyeyemi
  • The volcanic island of Annobón, off the west African coast, provides the setting for this novel about a poor community facing a series of natural disasters. Survival, hope and despair wrestle in this surprising work by Equatorial Guinea’s leading author.’ Angel Gurria-Quintana, Financial Times (Best Books of 2014)
  • ‘[Ávila Laurel is a] leading light of the Equatorial Guinean literature movement.’ The Guardian
  • ‘Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel offers [a] plain style, grown out of the native oral tradition of storytelling. By Night the Mountain Burns is a collection of childhood memories, a working through of hardship and superstition.’ The Independent
  • ‘Ávila Laurel is a brave opponent of the corrupt Obiang regime in his native land. His dark, troubled narrative of “our Atlantic Ocean island” is remarkable, original and poetic.’ Tom Moriarty, Irish Times
  • Linguistic play and rhythm are clearly important to Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, that they are effectively conveyed in Jethro Soutar’s eloquent translation . . . It has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: a recognition it richly deserves.’ Times Literary Supplement
  • Poignant . . . This fascinating story emerges from the speaker’s inquiries into the identities and social laws of his community, and from his attempts to make sense of the calamities of his homeland.’ Publishers Weekly
  • ‘This translation by Jethro Soutar offers a glimpse into the joy and struggle of [the Annobón islanders’] isolation.’ Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • ‘[The novel’s] strength lies in the complexity of the social commentary that runs beneath the plot . . . incisively exposing the difficulties with cultural transmission, interpretation and ownership.’ Mona Moraru, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette
  • Ávila Laurel’s novel tells of survival in fierce isolation, a place where the ocean provides the only horizon and is a source of the greatest hopes and the most awful fears.’ Alfonso Carnicero Izquierdo
  • It has fallen to Ávila Laurel to be the chronicler of Annobón, just as Derek Walcott is for St Lucia, VS Naipaul for Trinidad and Edwidge Danticat is for Haiti. To this list must now be added the name of Annobón, half-evoked and half-dreamed in Ávila Laurel’s unique language.’ JM Pedrosa
  • The Equatorial Guinean novel that has perhaps captivated me the most is By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel. It is a story of great mystery, but also a testimonial to life on Annobón Island. This real-life island seems to emerge from the sea like some Atlantic legend, but the harsh conditions to which the islanders have been subjected mean we’re a long way from charming tales of mariners and mermaids. In these large-leaved green forests, the horror stories are all too real.’ Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, El País
  • ‘Heartfelt . . . Ávila Laurel has given us a fascinating insight into the struggles, setbacks and occasional triumphs of daily life on the island of Annobón and his limpid tale is only enhanced by the crystal-clear translation of Jethro Soutar.’ New Internationalist
  • ‘Reads a bit like a short story . . . An episode swells and lapses, another swells in turn … All are related in the same clear, sparse voice.’ Angus Sutherland, The Skinny
  • ‘A fascinating tale.’ Buzz
  • ‘Reading [By Night the Mountain Burns], it’s hard not to feel the excitement that comes with discovering a great author; the rare exhilaration that strikes once every few hundred books.’ Patricia Duffaud, The Bookbag
  • ‘What is most remarkable about Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s novel is how easy it is to slip into the story of a child growing up on an isolated island in Equatorial Guinea. We are not reading about mysterious ‘others’. We’re reading about people like ourselves, who live in a different place which has its own constraints – namely poverty and isolation.’ The Bookbag, Top 10 Literary Fiction Books of 2014
  • ‘Beautifully translated by Jethro Soutar . . . it weaves and digresses, adding a rich texture to the story. Like all the best stories it is one with humour, sadness, tragedy and mystery.’ Jo Harding, We Love This Book
  • ‘Melodic . . . Reading By Night the Mountain Burns is like listening to an old man tell a story that is so clear to him that his eyes look out through his child self onto a world he no longer inhabits … It is not a text of voyeurism or tourism; it is a text for remembering together.’ Emma Schneider, Full Stop
  • By Night’s unpredictability yields moments of bliss, but there are horrors to be found as well. Ávila Laurel summons up the intimate details of a small society with mesmerizing precision and structure . . . Absurdly funny and abundantly detailed.’ Tobias Carroll, Barnes and Noble
  • ‘Ávila Laurel weaves a fascinating tale of island life, poverty and isolation . . . enchanting and absorbing . . . A fabulous book and one that has been expertly translated.’ Booktrust
  • ‘A lyrical evocation of quite another world, with plenty to chuckle at and be troubled by along the way. Thronged with suspected sorceresses and a sense of the supernatural, this book weaves a kind of magic. Abandon any assumptions you might have about what a story is at the title page and dive right in.’ A Year of Reading The World
  • ‘A powerful testimony to both the way of life of the community and their ability to endure. Thanks to the publishers And Other Stories for bringing this book to us in English.’ Peakreads
  • ‘Enticing, suspenseful . . . By Night The Mountain Burns is a delight to read.’ Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone
  • ‘More than anything else, this novel demonstrates the delicate balance between humans, crops, the ecosystem, and the gods that needs to be maintained in such a small, isolated community. A beautiful novel that provides an intimate introduction to the struggles and pleasures of life on Annobón.’ The Globally Curious (IFFP Shadow Jury)
  • ‘A replication of the strong history of oral storytelling, you are drawn into our narrator’s story as though you were sitting on his porch.’ Messybooker (IFFP Shadow Jury)

Booksellers’ Praise for By Night the Mountain Burns

  • ‘Cannot praise And Other Stories enough for publishing Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns: never read anything like it.’ Jonathan Ruppin, Foyles
  • ‘Annobón, where Ávila Laurel was born, is a remote island in the south Atlantic forming part of the nation of Equatorial Guinea. His fictionalised account of his childhood there employs a striking voice, adult revisionism of his child’s-eye perspective, trying to make sense of a culture where the primitive – bartering is still preferred to money – rubs up against the intrusions of the industrialised world.’ Jonathan Ruppin, Foyles bookshop, Best Fiction of 2014


  1. Elisa Rizo says:

    Juan Tomas Avila Laurel is one of the best writers from Equatorial Guinea. No doubt this is one of his best books yet!
    Great that And Other Stories have chosen to look at such a great book and writer – Can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks…
    It would be awesome to have this book available in English as well! Are there any plans for a translation to English?

  2. Stefan Tobler says:

    Hi Elisa,
    Nice to hear you love this writer! Jethro Soutar, a translator, brought his book to our attention, which is why we’re reading it in the reading group.

    What happens after that is undecided: we might decide that the book is great and want to publish it – or that the book is great but not right for our list.
    If another publisher reads about it here and decides to publish it, that’s great too. (We can only publish a handful of new titles each year.)

    It would be lovely if you could tell us more about why you think this book deserves to be published? We’ll have a meet-up in January in London, but it would be nice to talk about the book here online too.

  3. Elisa Rizo says:

    Dear Stefan,
    My apologies for the delay. I was traveling.
    Indeed, this is one of Juan Tomas’ greatest works. He has created a literary aesthetics that is informed by this multi-linguial, multi-cultural environment. Thus, his literary style is constituted by images that synthetize his society, reflect on world history and connects Equatorial Guinea to other nations, across time and geography. His literature has generated great interest in the United States, Spain and Latin America, especially among academics. There are a growing number of articles, book chapters, Ph.D. dissertations and masters theses written on the literature by this author.
    I recently had the honor to edit an anthology of selected works by him (“Letras Transversales: obras escogidas de Juan Tomás Avila Laurel. Madrid: Verbum, 2012). I have also published articles about his works extensively. This novel is one of the best that I have ever read! It combines a series of classical elements reformulated in a postcolonial environment in a language that is complex, elegant, attractive and beautiful. I look forward to start the conversation!

  4. John McGill says:

    This is fascinating stuff. There is an odd repetitiveness about the narrative, with information offered several times, sometimes with little alteration to wording: a stylistic feature that could perhaps be irritating, but is more likely in this case to be hypnotic. You want more.

    Obviously worth publishing.

    • Jethro says:

      Thanks for the comment, John. You’re right about the repetition, and when translating the sample I tried to stay faithful to it as it’s a notable feature of his style. I think it works on two fronts, the first being that it gives the narrative an oral quality, which seems appropriate to the setting. The second is that it shows the emphasis (sometimes the overemphasis) placed on certain ideas, events and preoccupations, in the way that can happen on a small and remote island where there is not a constant flow of incident and information.
      There’s a great Brazilian book called Vidas Secas (Dry Lives) by Graciliano Ramos, set in the northeastern hinterlands. The character’s same rudimentary thoughts, worries and ambitions recur over and over again, and in a sparse vocabulary, the scope of their knowledge and imagination limited by their surrounds. I think Laurel is doing something similar, albeit with a freer use of language. The inhabitants of the island are part of the wider world – indeed dependent on it – but they are excluded from it too.

      • “Vidas secas” is on my shelves in both castellano and English – a novel where the reading of the chapters might be in any order without diminishing the “sense” of the narrative. Hopefully readers in English will be able to read “Arde el monte…” one day before too long.

      • Benita says:

        I consider Arde el monte de noche as Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s best novel without any doubt, i would dare to say that it is also one of the best (if not the best) novel by an Equatoguinean writer. Only one novel from this country has been translated into English thus far: Shadows of your Black Memory, by Donato Ndongo-Bidyogo, translated by Prof. Michael Ugarte and published by Swan Isle Press in Chicago. It is a beautiful edition. A second novel, Ekomo, by María Nsue, is in the process of being published in English as well (I did the translation myself). Ávila Laurel’s translation would be more than welcome for a University audience here in the United States. I entirely support its translation as soon as possible!
        A couple of minor precisions: the author’s full last name is Ávila Laurel; his previous novel is _Avión de ricos, ladrón de credos_ (not the other way around). -:) I truly hope the project goes ahead.

  5. One of the best novels Elisa has ever read – high praise indeed! A novel written between languages and cultures sounds like an inventive proposition.
    Has anyone else read it? If so, I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts!

  6. Ana Lúcia Sá says:

    Arde el Monte de Noche is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. The story embraces you. About the author childhood in one land and one political context linked to what Fanon called “the wretched of the earth”, it builds a differential consciousness. The literary talent, combined with all the local and Atlantic themes, is moving.

  7. Rachael McGill says:

    I’ve read it in the Spanish, and found it intriguing and beautiful – a lovely, deceptively simple style, and subject matter that revolves around a place so strange (and completely unknown to us) that it can’t fail but be fascinating. The author has profound political and philosophical points to make , which stem from anger and passion, but he does it with the lightness of touch that characterises the really accomplished writer – we feel we’re reading a simple story of an island community, but images and ideas linger in the mind. Avila Laurel is a fascinating character himself, and it would be great to see his work in English.

  8. Cassie Stafford says:

    I like the extract a lot. It definitely makes me want to read more. the child’s voice is a great way to tell of the ways of the place – unexplained to the narrator, as they are to us, and suggesting darker forces at work. I had never heard of this island, but now I’m going to go and find out!

  9. Cátia Miriam Costa says:

    Great news!! Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel is one of my favorite Afircan writers, using irony and yet having a beautiful writing that makes us create all the environment of the fiction. I hope I can read him soon in English!

  10. Mariella Mancino says:

    This extract is interesting and well written. It is a pleasure to read such a confident voice. I would love to read the whole novel in English. There is not enough published about the African rural experience, but I think there is a fascination with it and a demand for it.

  11. A quiet narrative – attractive from the outset. One would hope there are moments of a different dynamic, perhaps the signalled “frightening” event, but I like the meditative note as a basis.

    I’m interested to understand more of this island, and its relations with the “friendly nation”, and generally enjoy the creation of “unknown” or “un-located” regions to read from. There is a lot held back by the narrator, which promises an interesting and provocative read. By far the best of the three offerings here.

    • I ought to add that I’m not considering the nature of the AOS list in any of this – indeed, as a recent subscriber, I’ve yet to work out what “we’re” looking for. (The idea of opening excerpts to comment by many is to be applauded.)

  12. Lluís Rodríguez says:

    Su lectura atrapa al lector ya en los primeros instantes y lo transporta de inmediato a un mundo sugerido de imágenes y sonidos que el narrador ofrece con un estilo cercano y franco. Recomendable.

  13. Dan Kidd says:

    A fascinating backstory, and a distinctive voice if the extract is anything to go by. Would be fantastic if more from this part of the world, which I know precious little about, was available in English. I second those hoping that the translation project goes ahead!

  14. Josie Kelly says:

    Really enjoyed this extract and would love to read more (in English as sadly I can’t speak any other languages). I particularly like the innocence of the language used by the narrator but, like others have commented, it provides enough political and social undertones for any reader who has an awareness of the unfairness of the world. A small part of me doesn’t want to read on as I’m already sympathetic to the narrator, even after reading this short extract, and I’m worried about the troubles that are about to effect the island. I’ll never know unless this book gets translated.

  15. I was completely captivated by the extract from Jethro Soutar’s translation of BY NIGHT THE MOUNTAIN BURNS, the novel by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel.

    There is a quiet sense of menace that grows louder throughout the piece, evident in the hovering presence of the boats from unknown places, the absence of fathers “we never spoke of”, and of things only ever seen at a distance. And it seems to be a menace that contrasts completely with the measured, restrained tone of the narrator’s unadorned reportage. The directness of the storytelling is perfect for the content. No embellishment is necessary for a tale of this kind, a point that seems reinforced, somehow, by the moment at which the voice itself gives way under the weight of what it must relate, in the episode about the women being sent to the visiting boat to barter for goods (“I remember that one of the women told me… No, nobody told me anything.”)

    While the voice struck me throughout as entirely new and unique, it was also one that put me in mind of Camus; the extract’s level of suspense and intrigue, coupled with the constant suggestion of a kind of horror, provided vivid and compelling glances towards The Outsider.

    I enjoyed the adroitness of the shifts from personal to general (“My grandfather…”; “All men…”) and found that the directness of the language itself allowed for a narrative pace that made the piece compellingly readable. Not only is this a story that taps knowingly into a rich literary heritage of ‘Island Narrative,’ of stories of Old Men and The Sea, but also one that meets head on and more than answers Henry James’s insistence on a writer paying heed to the importance of the things that are not spoken, nor even thought of.

    By the end of the extract, the narrative voice has promised much as the teller of a tale, his ‘oral history’ incantatory tone shot through with sudden glimpses of something even darker, and more frightening still, than what is actually told. That this is underpinned always by the desperate lament of a child: “We didn’t really count,” serves to anchor the story even more firmly in a deep sense of melancholy which, in its echoes and repetitions, lends the work something of the structure of a series of lamentations.

    On reaching the point at which the extract ends, I was left feeling both bereft and, at the same time, full of expectation. It is a story that, having begun, I would like to be able to reel in and read the whole of.

  16. gunter says:

    recomendado con mayúsculas, prosa bien descriptiva y trabajada.

  17. Melaina Barnes says:

    The story made me think of other island stories full of details of daily life and acceptance of its strangeness, such as Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book – although that’s a very different tone of story telling – spare, northern, full of confidence that the strangeness will yield something good. Whereas this story lilts and meanders with its musings and repetitions, taking us into the workings of island life, giving us theories about why things might be the way they are, even as they are being remembered, worked out, worked over, discarded, all of which seems necessary to create space for knowing about the bad things that are coming.

    I had not heard of the writer before reading this translated extract, but I would like to know more of this story, hear more of this voice.


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