Occasional review: ‘The Island’ by Ana María Matute, translated by Laura Lonsdale

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The list of independent presses actively bringing great literature in translation is long and honourable – from And Other Stories to Fitzcarraldo to Les Fugitives to Tilted Axis – but it’s worth remembering that the big guys do do it too. Penguin Classics and Modern Classics have introduced me to writers over the last few years that now feel absolutely fixed in the constellation of my reading: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy; Yuko Tsushima’s pellucid novels; Mario Benedetti’s urgent romantic inquisitions; Raduan Nassar’s blistering novella A Cup of Rage. To these I can now add Ana María Matute, with her 1959 short novel The Island. These writers were all working between the 1950s and the 1970s, and it feels absolutely right that our (or my) sense of the international landscape should shift to accommodate them.

The Island is not a direct rendering of Matute’s original title Primera Memoria (First Memories). I think the original title is better, although the island setting is important in the way it focuses the narrative inwards. While the Spanish Civil War is burning up the mainland, Mallorca – for that is where it is set – is a held in an almost fairy tale-like trance. There is reference to Never Never Land, and young Matia’s grandmother is like something out of a Mediterranean Brothers Grimm: ancient, domineering and bound to meddle in fates beyond her own limited purview.

Matia is fourteen, and stuck on the island when the war turns her holiday a permanent vacation. She’s holed up in her grand’s grand old house with her cousin, Borja, who is one year older, and his dopey mother Emilia. Matia’s mother is dead, and her father absent somewhere; he may even – gasp! – be a Communist sympathiser. News comes slow from the war, but there is plenty of drama on the island, largely centred around the Taronji brothers, a pair of local fascists happy to threaten and even kill suspected Republicans. They throw one man off a cliff, then poison his family’s well by throwing down it the corpse of their dog, killed especially.

These personal-political barbarities are really just the backdrop to the story of Matia’s coming of age, however. She has a love-hate relationship with Borja, who torments her even as he needs her as a partner in crime, and over the course of the novel she falls in love with Manuel, son of the man thrown off the cliff. (In her introduction the translator Laura Lonsdale explains the anti-Semitism behind these acts, referring to the Xuetes or Chuetas of the island, descendants of Jews either forced to convert to Christianity or to keep their true religion hidden. She shows how Matata uses them, and the persecution of the Jews by the Inquisition, to draw parallels with Spain’s continued persecution of Republicans, that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make when the novel was published.)

The novel plays out over a summer, and is a ripe and vivid depiction of place. I was struck by the many powerful descriptions of the sun – not the wonderful bright Mediterranean sun that you might wish for, but something far more oppressive:

Hatred would burst through the silence like the sun, like an inflamed, blood-shot eye through fog. To me the sun on the island was always sinister, because of the way it polished up the stones of the square, leaving them shiny and slippery as bones, like a strange and malignant ivory.

And there was a well between the agaves, where a grey sun licked at the rusty chain.

The sun outside was a silent red thunderclap, more deafening than real thunder.

So we are immersed in young Matia’s experience, but our vision of the island summer is also coloured by the book’s narrative position which places us in a vague distant future, with the adult Matia looking back on the events with something like wisdom, something like nostalgia, and something like pity for the characters – herself included, but especially Borja. She interrupts her narration regularly with parenthesised reflections, many of them starting with the boy’s name, repeated, in a kind of platonic lament:

(Borja, Borja. We may not have loved each other as brother and sister, as the Holy Mother Church demands, but we at least kept each other company. And I ask myself, my poor brother, with your bravado and your hard, proud heart, if you were not just a solitary creature like me, like all young people.)

These interpolations really make the novel, hauling it out of a coming-of-age story into something more powerful. I’ve been trying to remember what this plaintive cry reminds me of, and I can’t quite pin it down. I thought it might be Cendrar’s ‘Prose du Transsibérien’, with its refrain of “Blaise, dis, sommes-nous bien loin de Monmartre?”, which is not it, but it’s as close as I can get.

It’s a great book, unruly and passionate and brutal. The children in it are “malevolent and capricious, with their stubborn wilfulness and stupid arguments”; the adults, to the mind of the adult narrator, fare no better:

(Oh, how dirty and pathetic, how cheap and pretentious adults were.)

No one comes out of the summer well, but the dirt and the sun and the calm eye for human viciousness will leave you exhilarated.

Thanks to Penguin for the review copy of the book.


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  3. JacquiWine

    Thanks for writing about this, Jonathan. I really like the sound of it. The loss of innocence/coming of age is one of my favourite themes in fiction, especially in these Southern European settings where the protagonist’s feverish emotions are often heightened by the blistering sun. The broader political context makes this all the more appealing. It sounds a little like Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante, another intense coming-of-age story from a similar era.

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