IFFP 2015: Knausgaard and Ávila Laurel

KnausgaardKarl Ove Knausgaard, Boyhood Island: My Struggle Book 3 (2010)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2014)

I expect that Knausgaard will remain a fixture of the IFFP longlist until the whole of My Struggle receives UK publication; here he is for the third year running, anyway. By now, the style and approach are known quantities – intensely detailed chronicles of everyday life, told in the rough-and-ready tones of Don Bartlett’s translation – but the substance varies. The stereotype of My Struggle is that it’s just a catalogue of minutiae; but what made the first volume especially so vital for me was the sense of Knausgaard grappling with the deeper realities of life – love, death, memory – and the dizzying moments when these would break through all the chatter.. In Boyhood Island, though, I we’re largely left with only the chatter.

It’s sharp, disarmingly frank chatter: Knausgaard is focusing on his childhood, and evokes the sense of this as a time of exploring, discovering boundaries and testing them (for good or ill). There’s a running theme of the restrictions of inside spaces (home, school) versus the freedom of outside – to the point where the teenage Karl Ove talks in terms of treating his bedroom as the ultimate ‘outside’ space.

There are times when Knausgaard confronts the some of the realities which animate My Struggle: how can he really remember all this? what does he actually know about that time? But I cannot shake the impression that, in Boyhood Island, I got the form of My Struggle without the full effect, and that feels like having only half a book. That’s why I’m not keen to see this volume progress any further in the IFFP.

Avila Laurel

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, By Night the Mountain Burns (2008)
Translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (2014)

Relatively little African literature in translation makes it to UK publication, and By Night the Mountain Burns would be notable simply for being only the second work from Equatorial Guinea to be made commercially available in English. More than that, though, it’s also very good.

At the beginning, we don’t know why, or to whom, the narrator of Ávila Laurel’s novel is telling his story, but we do know that he’s telling it orally. He begins with the song that would be sung when the people of his island pulled canoes to the shore, then runs through various events and situations from his childhood: the grandfather who would never visit the sea; a fire that destroys the mountainside plantations; visitors who come to trade, or for more mysterious reasons. The style is dense, rhythmic and discursive; I was interested to read this article by Jethro Soutar on the choices he had to make while translating, which shows just what a precision job it was.

By Night the Mountain Burns highlights a number of opposites (I hesitate to say ‘contradictions’): the spoken and written texts; the island’s vernacular and Spanish, the language of authority; the mixture of Catholic and traditional beliefs. The tensions created by these opposites create an undercurrent that ripples through Ávila Laurel’s novel; but all is held together by the flexibility of the narrative voice. Though the narrator’s digressions might seem to risk making the novel too diffuse, in the end I found that a cohesion of tone wins out. There’s a wonderful sense that the style and voice are not passively reflecting place and circumstances, but are actively creating them. I was reminded of Zone in that way – and, like Zone, it helps just to jump right in.

I enjoyed By Night the Mountain Burns, and I’d be happy to see it on the IFFP shortlist. On a final note, this is the first time that And Other Stories have received a nod from the IFFP; they’re a great publisher, and I’m pleased to see them get this recognition at last.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.


  1. Nice reviews David. Two boyhoods, two islands. I definitely find the tale recounted in the second richer and more engaging. Karl Ove is proving a struggle and your assessment leads me to think that to appreciate his charm I would be better to go back to one of the earlier volumes. I agree that seeing As the Mountain Burns make the short list would be a positive, for the author, translator and publisher.

    • Thanks Joe. I didn’t juxtapose these two books deliberately, but once I realised I had, I thought about making more of the connection – then decided not to, because I wouldn’t be doing that if it were a different combination of titles. I do prefer the Avila Laurel, though.

      For me, the first volume of Knausgaard is the one that feels like the book he _needed_ to write, then the urgency gradually diminishes (though a lot of people rate the second book highly). I’d try that one and see what you make of it.

      It would be great to see Avila Laurel’s book shortlisted, though I’d hope the judges would do so on merit alone – it’s good enough for that.

  2. Excellent reviews! I’m hesitant about the Knausgaard – I just keep wondering if it will be too, well, manly for me! Is it a book for guys? Is there such a thing? 🙂

    • Thanks Kaggsy. Is it too much of a guy’s book? Tough to say. This particular volume, perhaps not, even though it revolves around a boy and his father. Volume two is the one where he really ponders the place of masculinity. But I would always recommend going to volume one first, and seeing how it goes.

  3. I think you’re underselling the Knausgaard a little. What really makes the book is the contrast between the happy, carefree outdoor scenes and the utter tension and powerlessness Knausi feels whenever he crosses the threshhold of his home – it’s enthralling at times, even if the book as a whole doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first two.

    P.S. I just got a text from the library informing me that the fourth part is ready to be picked up 😉

    • Fair enough, Tony: I see where you’re coming from with the contrast, and I’m quite willing to accept that the book may be better than I rate it. But it simply didn’t work that well for me, and certainly I never found it enthralling. (Mind you, for me the second volume doesn’t reach the heights of the first…)

  4. I agree with your comments on Knausgaard – Boyhood Island was a perfectly good autobiographical novel but it didn’t have the impact of the first two volumes (it’s that difficult third album). However, I will be less glowing about By Night the Mountain Burns, though I appreciate you pointing me in the direction of the article about the translation. I identified the same battle as you (digressions v tone) but decided there had been a different winner!

    • Hi Grant. The trouble I find with evaluating Knausgaard is that my impulse is to judge the later books in light of my experience with the first. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair – on the one hand, they are part of the same cycle; on the other, each book really ought to be allowed to stand or fall on its own merits – but I feel I should stick by my initial reaction. Sorry to hear you didn’t care for the Avila Laurel, but the beauty of doing these things is that we get different opinions on the same issues.

  5. We agreed on Catton, and I think we agreed on Ali Smith, but this one we don’t see the same, David. I have adored each and every one of Knausgaard’s My Struggle books, and think that volume 3 might be my favourite. I bought volume 4 yesterday and can’t wait to get started. As for whether it’s too male, my answer is no (as a female reader). I find them enthralling and compelling and addictive; the books are about childhood, about child-parent relationships, sibling relationships, friends and peers; he writes in a very real way about parenting, and in a way that any mother or father who has spent long days, weeks, years at home with young children will recognise. He writes about things that are of common human interest, the old ‘what it means to be human’. And he writes very well, using fiction techniques and therefore infusing his prose with a beautiful literariness that’s not over-wrought. I do think that readers are split; they either hate it or love it. I love it and am boring people at every turn with my almost-violent proselytising. I will admit, though, to having a high tolerance for detail and slow pace and what others might call tedium. (I also love Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books.)

    • Hi Jenny. I can tell how much you like Knausgaard, because this is how I react when people are negative about The Luminaries… 🙂 It’s not that I dislike Boyhood Island so much as that I don’t get from it what I did from volume 1 in particular. From your comment, it also sounds as though we like different aspects of the series.

  6. Yes, we can get pretty fierce (passionate?) when people don’t see things the same way but that’s more than fine, as you said above.

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