The Gurugu Pledge (And Other Stories, 2017) is Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s second novel to be translated into English. It takes as its subject a real-life setting: specifically, Mount Gurugu, located near Melilla, a Spanish enclave within Morocco. Its proximity has made it a destination for many people from across Africa who are in search of a better life in Europe. Ávila Laurel’s novel memorably features an abundance of narrative voices, creating a powerful sense of the people at the center of a hotly debated issue. It’s also a boldly structured work, which utilizes a number of narrative techniques to evoke the panoply of perspectives. We talked with Ávila Laurel about the genesis of the novel, its relationship to his earlier work, and the issues at its center.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What first drew you to the subject of immigration, and, more specifically, the setting of Mount Gurugu as the inspiration for a novel?
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (JTAL): I think it was perhaps the fact that the migrants were African and there were several months when news about them was reported in such an alarming fashion, as if it was some kind of attack. I knew they gathered on Mount Gurugu waiting to jump the fence—I live in Spain and there are regular reports—and so I decided to set the novel there, not least because, as far as I see it, it’s the place where they live with the most dignity on their migratory journeys. In any case, my interest in black people leaving different parts of Africa to go to Europe goes back many years—in fact eight years ago I wrote a book called Ahmed El Arabi o el abrazo del desierto (Ahmed the Arab, or the Desert's Embrace) in which African migrants, with the help of a millionaire, end up founding a city in the desert. I still think a lot of suffering might have been avoided if they'd actually done it, although obviously it's what you might call a fairly dreamy plan. It’s a short book and remains unpublished.
WWB: Throughout this novel, the stories told by various characters take center stage in the narrative. Structurally, how did you determine how best to nestle these stories within the larger arc of the novel?
JTAL: From the moment I decided to give these migrants a voice, or rather the dynamic of the novel demanded I do so, I knew that the way their stories tied together or formed a whole would depend on their collective fate. And it’s simple really, if you start with people talking, their stories inevitably end up forming part of the crux of the narrative. As a writer I start by writing the title, which in my case was El juramento de Gurugú, The Gurugu Pledge, and then no matter what you do, your arc has to take you to the moment when they make their juramento, their pledge, and there are a lot of them and naturally they come together. So in a way it would make more sense to ask how I determined to nestle the filler around these stories.
WWB: Immigration remains a contentious issue for many politicians in Europe. Did you have to deal with any changes in the real-world events you were inspired by over the course of writing the book?
JTAL: When we say it’s a contentious issue for many politicians we first have to think about what this means, whether it means they are personally troubled by these issues. I don’t think they are, I don’t think politicians tend to care about such things. For it’s one thing to actually care and another to make a decision based on voter or media pressure. And as we’ve seen, whenever they do make a decision it tends to be, in the vast majority of cases, to the disadvantage of the migrants. In my case, I ought to say that I came to Spain from Equatorial Guinea on a visa that allowed me to enter and remain for a couple of months, then it ran out. So I spent several months without any papers, although I wasn’t unduly worried because my situation, having arrived after a brief hunger strike, was a fairly particular situation. For example, I hadn’t left Guinea to seek a better life, regardless of whether my life would have been better in Europe, but for other reasons. I was told that in my case it would have been easier to seek political asylum, but I refused, because not being able to return to my country, which is one of the conditions of asylum, was something I didn’t like the idea of at all. I was in limbo for a few months and then I was given residency but without the right to work. And during that time without any paperwork, I found out many things, like the fact that you cannot board a plane in Spain even though you have a valid passport from your own country. I learned that pestering people for paperwork is just a form of hounding them. It’s not about legality, it’s about repelling them. So I found these things out for myself, and then when I was writing the novel, I learned that a well-known journalist in Spain had gone to Mount Gurugu and he’d told the people there about an incident in which a lot of black people had died. I’d been doing research to find out about the mountain itself—were there any animals, was there water, what type of plants were there, the sort of information you need for the setting and so on, but I kept coming across things that surpassed fiction. So I tend to say that everything that shouldn’t have happened to these black migrants already did happen. The truth is that the novel is a fair recreation of a very dramatic reality.
The diverse backgrounds of the inhabitants of Gurugu demanded diversity in the narrative voice.
WWB: Over the course of The Gurugu Pledge, the narrative voice moves in and out of the third person. What led you to make that decision?
JTAL: Remember how the narrator doesn’t jump the fence in the end? The reality is that those who do jump it and lead sorry lives in the internment centers have nobody to listen to them. The narrative voice moves between protagonists because they all need to speak, they should all be heard, but then ultimately someone does have to have the final word. And I wouldn’t say it’s an accident that he who speaks last didn’t jump. But if just one person had spoken, it would have been their story, from their perspective, and they cannot know the particulars of everyone’s lives. The diverse backgrounds of the inhabitants of Gurugu demanded diversity in the narrative voice.
WWB: There are a number of references to soccer players from various African nations who became global superstars in Europe—Samuel Eto’o being the most prominent. Have you found that the game of soccer has had an ability to bring people from various parts of the world together?
JTAL: Yes, but it’s more than that, the phenomenon of football in Africa is something worthy of wider attention. Again, reality surpasses fiction, because the capacity football has to interfere with African lives, whether for a few minutes of leisure or more consequentially, is high indeed. Just to give a small example, I recently watched a documentary in which football is used as a form of social reintegration in an infamously insalubrious Ugandan prison. They organize football tournaments in the prison and the teams, not insignificantly, are all called Manchester whatever, Chelsea, Liverpool, etc.
WWB: The Gurugu Pledge ends with its narrator looking south, back toward the River Zambezi. Do you see this as a gesture of resignation, or as something more hopeful?
JTAL: I mentioned Ahmed the Arab earlier, in which the migrants decide to form a city. If The Gurugu Pledge points to a similar idea, or at least to taking a decision that runs counter to the general trend, it’s because maybe there’s a solution there, or an ideal that at least deserves entertaining.
WWB: Your earlier novel, By Night the Mountain Burns, also included a detailed sense of a community. What are some of the challenges of writing about the shifting dynamics within a large group of people?
JTAL: I wouldn’t ever want to give the impression that with novels we writers control everything when we write. Very often the outcome depends on things we cannot control. Personally I write guided by feelings and I like to say I owe everything to the muses, so I don’t worry myself unduly about how to tackle a topic. What can happen then is that if you tackle a particular kind of topic, readers may have some remote sense that the topic is common to Africa, or to communities they’ve seen themselves, and that depicting it therefore comes easily. But I think it’s quite the opposite, it’s harder to write something striking about a reality people think they know about.
It’s harder to write something striking about a reality people think they know about.
WWB: Since The Gurugu Pledge was first published, have you heard from any readers whose opinions on immigration were changed after reading your novel?
JTAL: Well, I should think that reading this book might confirm to people that things are not going well regarding this issue. Before reading, some people won’t have known of Equatorial Guinea’s existence or that the situation in Melilla is red-hot, but I don’t know their opinions on immigration or even if they have one. But having read my novel or not, I frankly doubt very much whether people who live so far removed from the African reality will look favorably upon the idea of incorporating so many African people into their communities.
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 The Gurugu Pledge, the novel Avión de Ricos, Ladrón De Cerdos (The Pig Thief and the Rich Man’s Airplane), 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.
Read an excerpt from Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns, translated by Jethro Soutar