‘Neath your blanket of mists
We shall not forget you,
The Malvinas: Argentina’s
The above are the lyrics from a felicitous song chanted during the course of Argentine writer Carlos Gamerro’s mesmerizing novel, The Islands. Although the novel was originally released in Spanish over a decade ago, the English translation by Ian Barnett (in collaboration with the author) was only released in 2012; appropriately commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Falkland Islands conflict which is at the centre of this beguiling work. It is a story based largely in the present day and age and narrated by a war veteran and expert hacker Felipe Felix. Whilst the novel enters into the terrain of political satire, it transcends that to become a surreal and all-encompassing exploration of the distortion of public, and private, memory as it jumps between perceptive battle scenes, hazy diary accounts and utterly inventive depictions of present day Argentine society.
Felipe Felix, our hero, literally can’t get the Falklands out of his head – he has shrapnel stuck in his brain as a souvenir from the war. The other characters in the book are much the same. This everyday obsession with the islands forms the background of the story which gradually evolves into a murder mystery in reverse – the murderer is revealed right from the beginning and the hero must locate the witnesses to the very public crime or face the wrath of his employer, a billionaire sociopath by the name of Fausto Tamerlan.
Tamerlan provides some of the more peculiar expositions which lend this caper certain surreal and highly symbolic elements that play with the minds of the readers. Tamerlan’s office is a wondrous construction, built entirely out of mirrors that offer the person on the top floor a bird’s eye view of the goings-on of all the employees down below – perhaps reflecting on political situation in Argentina. Conversely, the view of the employees to the top is blocked by the very same mirrors. Again, this is a paranoid exposition of the lack of transparency offered by those higher up in the chain. In a civilization where ‘information has become the new opium of the people’, lack thereof would drive one to insanity, as proclaimed by one of the State Intelligence Department agents in the book.
The story being narrated by a former army man, the narration is susceptible to the typically chuffed-up army pride allowing the author to make a sardonic satire on misplaced nationalism. At one point, a character from the novel exclaims, ‘Despite never having stepped foot on the Islands, they’d pushed for honorary ex-combatant status and were now entitled to bask in dubious glory and reap paltry rewards…’ Gamerro shows how the Falklands have become a bitter symbol of national honour and pride, with everyone even remotely involved with the conflict given more than his due. As a deranged historian proclaims in the book, ‘Argentina is an erect prick ready to breed and the Malvinas, its balls. When we recover them, fertility shall return to our lands and we shall become the great nation our founding fathers once dreamed of. A potent country!’ This degree of wishful thinking has its roots in an expansive amount of hope and the bitterness of crushed pride, which leaves the characters of the novel to ruefully question what might have been. This questioning forms the crux of the novel and is best established by Felipe when he ponders the fact that ‘the winners in any conflict reach their destination believing they have walked a straight line to victory, the losers, us, on the other hand are left to fret over the multiple possibilities of history.’
Gamerro’s novel explores the notion of the many possible societies which could have emerged untarnished by the loss of the Falklands. It is inescapably a novel about the psyche of Argentina and pays homage to the heroes of that country whilst exploring the hopeless nostalgia for a lost future which haunts the country. The novel explores the way in which national consciousness is manifested, whether it be through jingoism, or regret. In doing so it retains the feel of a thriller, one which is bursting with invention, both in terms of its complex narrative weave and in terms of its multifaceted perspective on the Falklands conflict, which is refracted through so many evocations of dread, nostalgia and pride that you are never quite sure where Gamerro, or his protagonist stands on their beloved Malvinas.
By Pratiek Sparsh Samantara