M. René Bradshaw reviews The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

Translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories, 2017)

Morocco’s Mount Gurugu is a cold, dry mountain whipped by wind, a no-man’s-land under constant surveillance by armed police, lacking in vegetation and adequate water sources, and home to an enclave of macaque monkeys. There is little beauty here that might attract a stranger, let alone give them the means to survive. But it is here that some five hundred African migrants have created a refuge, “the residence,” desperately deprived but still sustaining, as they wait to climb the city walls of Melilla below. For the migrants, this slice of Spanish territory on the North African coast is their gateway to Europe and to freedom. Unable to procure work, cruelly mistreated by the local forest rangers, forced to beg for scraps of food and supplies, they are segregated to their perch on the mountaintop and left with two pastimes: playing football, and swapping stories from their previous lives.

For on Mount Gurugu, stories form the single and most valuable currency:
There was nothing to be cheerful about in the residence, so anyone able to step outside their immediate reality and speak of something other than the day-to-day was considered a hero. Yes, a hero, because we had ample cause to complain, to curse our luck from morning till night, and yet when the time came to stick hands between thighs and try to get some sleep, a few good folk always found the strength to speak of what their lives had been before coming to the residence.

In Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s novel The Gurugu Pledge, translated from Spanish by Jethro Soutar, refugees from Mali, Benin, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Gambia, to name a few, tell stories that are framed by the narrator’s interspersed asides. The tales alternate between the humorous and the grim: one man recalls a little girl who could transform into an old woman; another recites a licentious poem that led to his father’s expulsion from his lycée; the gluttony of a former aid to the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin is detailed like gleeful gossip. Some offer temporary liberation from the misery of the everyday, while others, such as a falsified yarn imposed on one of the few women in the residence as a way of forcing her into trading sex, reflect the corruption and oppression of individual freedoms that are rooted in the societies from which the migrants have escaped. In these moments, we are reminded that even in a setting of shared survival, humans can still manipulate power for self-gain, and that Mount Gurugu is not an isolated sanctuary to be romanticized. Bridging both oral and written traditions, these stories become the novel’s quietly burning pulse.

Although Laurel is Equatorial Guinea’s leading dissident writer, The Gurugu Pledge is deeply rooted in the African experience in all its diversity. As in By Night the Mountain Burns, his first novel to be translated into English (also by Soutar, 2014), Laurel writes the history of a collective existence, inspired by firsthand accounts. Recognising the creativity and narrative agency of his countrymen and other Africans, his aesthetic engages with the rhythms and repetitions of oral storytelling. In a 2011 interview, when questioned about what “being African” meant to him, Laurel responded,

I think being African is circumstantial. What happens is that globally being African means taking on and facing the problems of underdevelopment, marginalization, poverty. Then you realize that when you start to talk you are forced to do it about your reality. Being African, therefore, does not determine me, but it conditions me.

In its form and content, The Gurugu Pledge is a distinctly African creation. Though its prose is bare and unadorned, at times it is anthropological in its line of enquiry. Laurel brings the role of the storyteller to the fore and gives voice to experiences unknown to many. In doing so, and by rewriting the narrative of the actual migrant camp on Mount Gurugu, through which thousands fleeing to Europe from sub-Saharan Africa have passed, this fusion of fiction and reality dismantles interrelated edifices of the colonial. The textually fictionalized poles of The Gurugu Pledge are two real geographic sites, Mount Gurugu in Morocco, and Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the North African coast. Here, nationalism and the racialized binary between “Africa” and “Europe” are a reimagined delineation, speaking to the transnational nature of literature from Equatorial Guinea and the migratory experience to Europe.

When the narrator imagines a visit of scholars to Mount Gurugu, he emphasises the power that football holds as a rare form of collective culture in postcolonial Africa. After a long-winded debate concerning football’s social benefits and its role in nation-building, one scholar concludes: “the few blacks chasing after a ball on TV achieve a good deal more than any number of conferences on Africa organised by the world’s leading universities.” It is difficult not to appreciate Laurel’s long strokes of gentle, mocking humour coupled with a kind of elevated honesty. Even on the mountain’s short plateau, which isn’t large enough to play offsides, the African migrants have adopted football for their own reasons and on their own terms, although they continually reference African players who have gone on to play for European teams. Rather than leave the importance of football to academic or idealised interpretations, the narrator brings it back to the everyday business of survival at the ground-level. He ends the chapter matter-of-factly:

But we all know how it is with Africa, what’s hoped for never comes, so the black people who lived there had to focus their attention on living, in a very harsh environment, doing what they could to survive, doing the only thing available to them: playing football.

In this way, The Gurugu Pledge may be one of the few novels available in English to connect Africans’ passion for the sport to their experiences with European domination.

Equatorial Guinea, which won independence from Spain in 1968, is the only African state in which Spanish is an official language. Linguistic barriers, coupled with decades of dictatorship and kleptocracy, have led to the country’s artists and writers being cut off from the rest of the continent and the world, even from each other. Laurel has long been persecuted for his activism against the government’s Obiang regime and its blatant disregard for human rights. In a 2014 essay for The Guardian, titled “Translating the dangers faced by an author under threat,” Jethro Soutar illuminates the challenges of working with a writer at risk. While waiting for the release of By Night the Mountain Burns—only the second novel from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English—Laurel was forced into hiding. Soutar panicked when he learned the news, and reached out to Laurel’s online network of international supporters. (Laurel later sent word confirming his safety.) Soutar reveals how a translator can play an essential role in raising awareness of a writer’s plight—in Laurel’s case, his potential peril:

It’s the translator's job to translate a book’s words, but of course you also have to translate cultures. You become informed about the author's country and circumstances, and you become well acquainted with the author, especially if you’ve had to ask him a lot of questions for your translation. You become a source of hope in times of crisis, and although you haven’t asked for the responsibility, and you maybe find it daunting, you respond as best you can, because you’ve also become the author’s friend.

Laurel and other writers like him are willing to put themselves on the line for social change, and sometimes they move the world. Until his current exile in Barcelona, he was one of the few dissident writers calling for change from within Equatorial Guinea. The decision to become a literary translator rarely begins as activism. But Soutar has absorbed much of the responsibility for bridging Laurel’s voice and mission to the outside world, stressing the active role of the translator as a complementary agent of change.

A question posed at the beginning of The Gurugu Pledge by one of the migrant storytellers—“Why do African stories always have to have unhappy endings?”—acts like a preemptive warning about the novel itself. The stories intensify, with shootings by the Moroccan forestry police, and a disastrous storming of the barbwire border fence into Melilla. Though Laurel embraces writing in Spanish (as well as translation into English) despite the colonial histories of these languages, he also seeks to establish an African literary identity outside the colonial framework. In the book’s closing stages, when the narrator reveals his role as witness and recorder of testimony—though not his nationality (“I’m African” is the solemn declaration opening his self-identifying chapter)—there is still room for one final image of bravura. The narrator abandons his own quest for Europe and returns to Mount Gurugu. Installing himself on the mountain’s southern face, “where the lights of nearby Europe do not reach,” he insists on one provision if his own story is ever told: “let it be known that I chose the southern face, that my gaze was turned toward the River Zambezi.” Flowing eastward from its source in Zambia, the Zambezi crosses six countries before finally uniting with the Indian Ocean.