A group of refugees in North Africa share their stories and bide their time, agonizingly close to freedom.
Mount Gurugu in Morocco is near Melilla, a sliver of Spanish territory on the North African coast. Crossing to Melilla would allow the African refugees on the mountain to continue to Europe, but law enforcement on both sides are loath to have them. So the characters in this loosely plotted novel by Ávila Laurel (By Night the Mountain Burns, 2014) are stuck, left to philosophize and tell stories that alternate from comic to bleak. One man recalls a little girl who could morph into an old woman and back again; another recalls a provocative poem his father wrote; another recalls the gluttonous appetites of an aide to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Spinning yarns can be dispiriting, though (“Why do African stories always have to have unhappy endings?” one asks), so the men take modest balm in an ongoing soccer tournament. But politics and struggle are rarely far from their collective mind, and the novel intensifies in its latter pages, with stories of beatings by the Moroccan forestry police and abuse of women by men within the camp and a push to climb the fence into Melilla. Though there’s not a strong arc to the novel, Ávila Laurel’s layering of anecdotes makes it clear how dehumanizing the refugee experience is, with authorities looking for any excuse to expel them from the camp. “Police would have liked nothing better than to raze the camp and clear the mountain of black people,” he writes. And though Ávila Laurel’s prose (via Soutar’s translation) isn’t very stylish, it has the benefit of plainspoken, documentary force and breadth of vision, his narrative eye exploring a variety of elements of life in the camp but concluding with a unified struggle for optimism and liberation.
An understated, somber, and highly observant sketchbook of lives on the margins.