Thursday, 21 June 2012

Islands of Despair

April 2012 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the Falklands War, a conflict between the UK and Argentina for ownership of a group of islands in the South Atlantic.  I was seven years old at the time but, for many reasons, the conflict is a clear memory from my childhood.  For most Britons, the war is history, over, leaving us to move on with our lives.  In Argentina however, if my latest book is anything to go by, the scars run a little deeper...

*****  
Carlos Gamerro's The Islands (translated by Ian Barnett) was written in 1998, but set in 1992, ten years after the war.  It follows Felipe Félix, a veteran of the conflict, as he moves around Buenos Aires in search of information.  Felipe is a hacker, an expert in the early days of computers, and he has been hired by a wealthy businessman to find witnesses to a murder.  Not because he wishes to solve the murder, but rather because he wishes to cover it up...

With a permanent reminder of the war in the shape of a fragment of his helmet permanently lodged in his skull, it's a tough task for Felipe to forget the war entirely.  However, the path to the names his employer requires leads Felipe back to old friends and enemies, forcing his overwrought mind to confront memories he'd much rather forget.  No matter how much he twists and turns, the road always leads back to the place a part of him never really left - las Malvinas...

The Islands, the latest in And Other Stories' wonderful selection of literature in translation, is a slightly confronting book for an Englishman.  As mentioned above, I still have vivid, if somewhat confused, memories of the war, and to see it re-imagined through Argentinian eyes can be a little unnerving.  An early chapter in which Felipe creates a computer game rewriting the outcome of the war, with British ships sunk at will and soldiers slaughtered on the cold, unforgiving expanses of Goose Green, is positively disturbing.  The reality, of course, is that this is just what Felipe wishes had happened...

This quickly passes though, and the further Felipe delves into the case he has been given, the less the story becomes about the wider events of the war and more about the lasting effect it has had on the unfortunate veterans.  Like all the old soldiers, Felipe is damaged, desperate to seek refuge in cyberspace, drug-fuelled dreams or sexual encounters - unfortunately, he is still unable to escape the pull of the Islands, which have become a piece of him.  Looking back on his time in uniform, he says:
"How could those simple girls from the neighbourhood or school, sometimes barely groped at a dance or beneath a burnt-out lamp post, compete with the Islands?  As the letters arrived - or didn't - from the mainland, or when we were defeated by the effort of reconstructing a face and body in that jealous and ruthless land, we gradually realised we were surrendering them in return for a greater love."

While Felipe understands that to move on he needs to get away from his past, his friends prefer to live there.  Whether meeting to prepare for the next invasion or constructing a scale model of the Islands in a cellar, they refuse to move on, threatening to pull Felipe back into his time in the army.  This glorification of the conflict sickens Felipe:
"...however hard I tried, I couldn't forgive them for always talking about the war as some longer, more exciting version of a school-leavers' trip..."
Gradually we learn the reality of what happened from Felipe's dreams, the descriptions of the hellish battles and the mind-numbing waiting.  Counting minutes to get through the day, soaked, freezing, not caring about the war, just wanting to go home...

The first half of the book didn't convince me totally.  Things took a good while to get moving, and the two strands didn't really seem to connect much for the first two hundred pages.  The scenes in Tamerlán's tower (including some rather unusual forms of father-son discipline...) seem over the top, shocking for the sake of being shocking.  There is also a section where Felipe searches for the people on the list, a meandering journey around the city which had me skim-reading and yawning a little.

However, once we get deeper into the book, and the two strands start to come together, it becomes a lot more interesting.  In fact, the more we ignore what is happening in the outside world and retreat inside Felipe's head, the better The Islands becomes.  Gamerro treats us to wonderful swirling passages of cocaine rushes and flashbacks, blurring the lines between past and present, memory and reality (if there are any such lines...).  Felipe's return to the mental institution he was once imprisoned in, simply turning up and not having the energy to leave again, is one of a number of excellent pieces of writing in the second half of the book.

Great credit must also go to the translator, Ian Barnett, for the job he's done on The Islands.  The original uses a mix of Spanish and English at times, making a clear translation imperative.  There are also several passages where one of Felipe's comrades spouts non-stop gibberish, sounds corrupted from the original language, but close enough to enable a listener to reconstruct the real text.  Translating this nonsense into English while leaving it close enough to something that makes sense must have been a mighty task :)

Gamerro's language games don't stop there though.  Fausto Tamerlán, the superhuman villain, has obvious connections to Goethe's soul-selling character, and also to the famous Muslim leader Tamerlane - a mighty king whose love for the arts is only matched by his willingness to slaughter.  And only a cynic would name his hero Felipe Félix - there's nothing lucky about this poor soldier...

...and that's what it all boils down to.  While Felipe came back, it would be hard to call him a survivor.  For the defeated, the war is an open wound - nobody came back whole.
"It isn't true there were survivors.  There are two bites torn out of the hearts of every one of us, and they're the exact shape of the Islands."
For the losers, the war is never really over...

12 comments:

  1. Hi Tony,

    Great review, thanks. I was in primary school during the Falklands War. There was a boy in my class whose brother was on one of the carriers. I remember us all writing letters to the soldiers etc.

    Always important to see things from the other side though. One of the things I believe is so powerful about fiction. It let's us experience the "other" in a very immediate way somehow.

    Thanks for all the AOS support!

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  2. Thanks - seeing things through other eyes is what translated fiction is all about (and this is a prime example!).

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  3. Now that's going on my wish list right away. Might even be an interesting choice for a future Literature and War readalong.
    There aren't even a lot of movies on this particular war (although I collected a list of some 10 titles not long ago) and much less has it been used about in novels.

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  4. Caroline - One book which mentions it in the background is David Mitchell's 'Black Swan Green' (set in England at the time of the war), but this is the first book I've read which really explores the war.

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  5. Remember it from this end & Thatcher's idea of national service to recruit more to the forces, Myself & a group of friends were considering leaving the country as we had no wish to fight for some place off South America. Also remember that a survey in a tabloid paper had that most people thought that the Island was somewhere off Scotland or had no idea where it was. All making this book an interesting angle on a tale I only know from my perspective.

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  6. Gary - I was a bit young at the time for that ;) I do remember though that the dad in Adrian Mole was similarly geographically challenged...

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  7. I remember the war I was ten at time ,I found this like you slow at the start and compared to his other book a little less polished but the desciptions of the war from argentina point of view were eye opening ,all the best stu

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  8. Stu - It's definitely affected by being a little plot driven - I enjoyed the flashbacks a lot more than the chasing after witnesses and the events in the tower...

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  9. Currently at page 163 and considering abandoning the novel ... Your words have convinced me to continue .....

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  10. Lizzy - I'm not sure exactly where that is, but I bet it's right in the middle of the worst bit. As I said above, all the chasing around and the shenanigans in the tower detract from the story somewhat.

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  11. Abandoned at the end of chapter 5 following the infamous telephone episode. So are there any unmissable chapters in the second half?

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  12. Lizzy - I think just avoid anything that happens inside the towers (or while chasing people through the city), and you'll be fine ;)

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