What do you call a novel that is simultaneously a model of narrative restraint and an urgent exploration of one of the most pressing issues of the modern world? On the surface, that might seem like a paradox that would cause a narrative to collapse from within. In the more than capable hands of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (and translator Jethro Soutar), the novel The Gurugu Pledge manages to turn those contradictory impulses into the stuff of powerful fiction–both via the story that it tells and through larger questions that its story and structure establish. It’s a continental discussion in fictional form, a deceptively modest work that encompasses hundreds of years’ worth of cultural history.
Ávila Laurel’s novel is set in a real place: Gurugu Mountain, located just outside the Spanish city of Melilla, on the southern end of the Mediterranean. Due to the mountain’s location, it’s become a destination for people throughout Africa who have opted to seek a better life in Europe. Over the course of several episodic chapters, Ávila Laurel tells these stories: his characters gather food, play soccer, and discuss various heads of state who have exacerbated certain aspects of society for the worst. And, for some of the characters, the question looms overhead: will this be the time that they try to enter Melilla, and brave injury or death to do so?
Initially, the novel is told in a collective voice; by the end, this has shifted, encompassing a more personal and direct point of view. But that lack of focus is the point: this isn’t simply the story of one person, but rather an attempt to capture a panoply of voices and perspectives, to summon a greater understanding of the issues and conflicts via a variety of perspectives.
A section in the first half of the novel features an account of the role soccer plays for these characters, both in terms of their everyday lives and as a means to transitioning into life in Europe. Specifically, it’s through the path established by the Cameroonian soccer great Samuel Eto’o, whose career has included stints at Barcelona, Chelsea, and Inter Milan–in other words, someone who left Africa for Europe and found vast success there.
From Mount Gurugu, your future was mapped out: you could see where you needed to get to, the path you had to take in order to follow in Samuel Eto’o’s footsteps. Samuel Eto’o was so attractive as a role model that many of the men on Gurugu played football in order to keep fit for when Chelsea or Barcelona signed them.
Ávila Laurel memorably captures the daily routines of life on the mountain, and does so from the opening lines of the novel: “We lived in the forest and cooked enough to still be standing,” he writes. “We gathered firewood and went down into Farkhana to buy fish, or to pretend to buy fish in the hope that some charitable soul would give us some.” But even as that collective narrative voice gives way to a host of different people telling their own stories, there seems to be a higher purpose here; in this dialogue between characters, Ávila Laurel is establishing a more literary dialogue between works, and across continents and centuries.
Alternately: The Gurugu Pledge is a novel about a group of people from across Africa who are looking to start new lives in Europe. These two continents are the constants of the book, the two poles around which the narrative gathers. In the first part of the novel, the reader is introduced to a host of characters telling stories to pass the time; even as the reader’s attention is held by the characters, it’s also drawn in by the stories that they’re telling. Structurally, this hearkens back to two of the formative works of European literature–namely, The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron. It makes perfect sense from a literary perspective: if you’re looking to explore the questions of identity and geography that Ávila Laurel does here, why not structure part of this book as a response to these particular works?
Much like the nods to Samuel Eto’o elsewhere in the novel, this is a work in which a dialogue between places is a constant element, running in the background even as other actions or conversations play out. Given that Ávila Laurel himself has lived on both continents–he left his home in Equatorial Guinea in 2011 for political reasons, and now resides in Spain–one assumes that these questions of geography and identity are more than simply theoretical for him.
Ávila Laurel has a fantastic sense of how to write about everyday life: his earlier novel By Night the Mountain Burns did an excellent job of bringing the reader into the inner workings of its setting. But here, his canvas is more vast; here, he’s incorporating centuries’ worth of literary traditions, the relationship between two neighboring continents, and the multiple dimensions of one of the most hot-button issues of our time. All that between the covers of a novel that abounds with affable conversation, a distinct narrative voice, and a thoroughly moving conclusion.
In a year that’s featured a number of powerful literary works on immigration, including Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, Ávila Laurel’s novel is a powerful addition to their ranks. It’s a work that quietly ushers you into its characters’ worlds, and subtly shows you the full range of issues at stake here. It’s the rare work of fiction that blends lived-in specificity and the biggest of big themes–the kind of paradox that, when handled correctly, results in a great work of art.
The Gurugu Pledge
by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
And Other Stories; 240 p.
Image source: Miguel González Novo via Creative Commons