By Night the Mountain Burns
by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (& Other Stories, ISBN 9781939293596)
This book is a true rarity; one of the very few works of literature to emerge from Annobón, a volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean which forms part of Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, a longstanding opponent of the dictatorial regime of Teodoro Obiang, now lives in exile in Barcelona and, in By Night the Mountain Burns, he has produced a heartfelt evocation of his homeland.
Drawing on his own childhood memories and the cadences of the island’s oral tradition, Ávila Laurel tells the story of his village. Many of the island households consisted of women and children only, the men having been forced to leave for the mainland to find work. In an upstairs room of the author’s own house sits the brooding presence of his enigmatic grandfather, returned from the sea with a secret which the author reveals gradually, in tantalizing glimpses.
Island life is far from edenic: living in dire poverty and relying on fish and the produce of their plantations for food, the islanders’ marginal existence is threatened by two calamities. First, a rampant bush fire destroys the bulk of their crops. As the islanders try to rebuild and replant, a cholera outbreak – unchecked by their pitifully inadequate medical resources – kills hundreds.
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.
Reviewer: Petter Whittaker
Inequality and the 1%
by Danny Dorling (Verso, ISBN 9781781685853)
‘There’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class that’s making war, and we’re winning.’ Thus spake the financier Warren Buffett, famously breaking ranks with his compatriots in ‘the 1%’ and exploding the lie that the super-rich act in the beneficial interest of the remaining ‘99%’ of us. In his timely and important book, Danny Dorling makes the case that such vast – and increasing – social inequality is not merely morally iniquitous but also deeply harmful to the fabric of society.
In closely argued chapters on childhood, work, wealth and health, he marshalls the statistical evidence underpinning the argument that growing inequality and ossifying social mobility have dramatic and wide-reaching detrimental effects across the fields of education, employment, life expectancy and social cohesion. The ‘greed is good’ philosophy and the mantra that the poorest in society should foot the bill for the calamities of the bankers is poisoning civil society, root and branch.
Danny Dorling ends this well-written examination of inequality by positing various measures by which it might be reined in, from regulation and fair taxation to protest movements and attitudinal change towards grotesque wealth accumulation. As he rightly says, there is widespread agreement (except, unsurprisingly, among the 1% themselves) that the situation in which the super-rich take more and more for themselves must and will end. The only question is how.
Reviewer: Peter Whittaker
by Assata Shakur (Zed, ISBN 9781783601783)
Assata Shakur is quite a character. An activist in the Black Liberation Army, as well as a former Black Panther member, Assata is now the only woman on the FBI’s most-wanted list. In 1977, she was convicted for the 1973 murder of a state trooper; one year later, she escaped and became a political refugee in Cuba, where she still lives.
Beyond those fixed events, however, is a woman made up of the million histories of a people who came before her, whose collective stories she has made into her own. That way, Assata is as much an autobiography as it is a narrated history of a whole race and social class, caught in a particular moment in time.
The intricacies of the Black Liberation struggle are captured and history is debunked: Abraham Lincoln or George Washington become old, bigoted men; hardened criminals become martyrs. All the while, Shakur’s writing is fast and furious, carrying the reader onwards.
There are moments when her revolutionary zeal becomes grating, however. When lack of nuance turns into glaring omission and when her naiveté on certain topics – such as ‘African people’ – is less than endearing. It’s impossible to remove this perspective from the circumstances into which she was born and which made her Assata.
Assata remains a fascinating must-read for anyone who wants to understand the Black Liberation movement.
Reviewer: Cristiana Moisescu
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate
by Naomi Klein (Allen Lane, ISBN 9781846145056)
This is a big, sweeping, important book. Klein argues, no less, that we need to build a grand coalition to democratically overturn the current order. Only by understanding that all our struggles are linked by the fight against the (discredited) ruling neoliberal ideology can we can come together, tackle climate change and advance social progress for all.
After the failure of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, it’s clear we can’t rely on politicians to safeguard the environment on which we depend. Nor can we rely on the free market, voluntary announcements by corporations and business leaders, or the big American conservation groups who have entered compromising relationships with polluting businesses. It’s up to us.
Klein lays out how the environmental movement has moved on since Copenhagen: realizing the scale of democratic and economic change required; embracing nonviolent civil disobedience; linking with those people – particularly First Nations – fighting to save their localities from projects like fracking and tar sands, helping to undermine the investment potential of those projects; building positive alternatives locally such as organic food-growing and renewable energy co-operatives; and undermining the political power of dirty energy through divestment campaigns.
Klein’s easy-flowing prose is not just for environmentalists. This book is for everyone.
Reviewer: Phil England