Sunday, 14 October 2012

Book review: The Islands by Carlos Gamerro

The Islands, Carlos Gamerro, trans by Ian Barnett in collaboration with the author (2012, And Other Stories, the original, Las islas, published 1998)

This week I read the most extraordinary novel I've come across this year: Carlos Gamerro's The Islands. It's not new, but it is new in English translation, for which it was specially revised. And a tip of the hat to the translator, Ian Barnett, right from the start: the language is amazing, versatile, springy. I haven't read the original so I can't directly compare the two, but to judge from the wordplay that made it into the English version, it must have been a fantastic challenge.

The Islands of the title are the Falklands/Malvinas, and straightaway we see where this book fits into this blog. The protagonist, Felipe Felix, is a veteran haunted by his memories of the conflict. A computer whizz, he is contracted by a megalomaniac businessman to track down the witnesses to a crime, and so starts a delirious romp through Buenos Aires of 1992, with frequent diversions into 1982.

A word of warning: this novel is not for the faint-hearted. It's not realist. It's not tasteful. You name it - sex, drugs, violence, incest, anti-Semitism, torture - it's in here. It was an unusual read for me, and to be honest after I'd read the first chapter I wasn't sure I wanted to go on. But the book drew me in, weaving the story of the legacy of the hopeless war the generals cooked up to bolster their flagging regime.
The farce was over. At that moment a giant hand descended from the sky and lifting up one corner, like someone getting ready to pull off a plaster, it tore off the skin of the city to reveal the desolate heath beneath, the windswept pastures, the streams of stone, the rocks and mud and bogs of the Islands.

Gamerro strips the surface from Buenos Aires and every character in the novel, to reveal their connection to Argentina's traumatic past. Inevitably, this includes a victim of torture (and, if you think the part about her being forced to marry her torturer is just one of the author's flights of fancy, there is at least one documented case of this actually happening*).

If anyone else has read or reads this, I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on it. I suspect this isn't the kind of book to attract mild reactions. For me, I finished it two days ago and it hasn't let me go yet.

*See Marguerite Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror, p. 78.

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