Scoop Review of Books

The Reflections and Returns of The Islands

The Islands by Carlos Gamerro, Translated by Ian Barnett in collaboration with the author; Introduction by Jimmy Burns (London: And Other Stories, 2012 £10)


Review By Mark P. Williams

Carlos Gamerro’s The Islands is, in all the best senses, an intense and fascinating reading experience.

The Islands is a novel where geopolitics is embedded in memory, compounding personal traumas within national ones. The narrative returns, through the histories of different characters to psychic territories of violence and loss, memory and denial. Set in Buenos Aires in 1992, it concerns the life of a Malvinas/Falklands veteran turned computer hacker named Felipe Félix, who is offered a sinister assignment by one of the most powerful men in the country.

Fausto Tamerlan summons Félix to his mirrored offices in the pinnacle of twin office towers in the centre of the city to hire his expertise; Tamerlan wants to use Félix’s computer programming skills to cover up all evidence that Tamerlan’s son murdered a man by throwing him from Tamerlan’s office window. Félix must contact his veteran friends in the secret police and tap their systems to locate each of the witnesses and change their stories.

…Again and again we return to the islands…

Gamerro’s novel is split into sixteen episodic chapters of varying pace which nevertheless develop a cumulative intensity all their own. The Islands, despite its formula-crafted opening set-up, is not an action-thriller or even a Chandleresque Detective Novel, although it gestures to both, something that leaves the reader to flounder slightly, but this is because its narrator is supremely reluctant to engage with his given mission; Félix is already floundering when we meet him. This is, in part, because of his own personal trauma, and the headaches and insomnia which dog him, and the drug use he attempts to compensate with, all of which drains him of motivation.

Félix’s reluctance as a narrator is also a function of his relationship to his designated role: he constantly aware that he is serving the interests of an exploitative, sadistic and tyrannical man; Félix does not so much progress as agonise his way through layers of complicity. Each chapter develops slowly as an exploration of the connections between Argentina’s past and its present centring on two themes: the disappeared, and the Malvinas veterans, as symbols of the country’s darker Right-wing nationalist politics. That does mean that the novel confounds reader expectation in some respects, but in the process it develops much more interesting relationships between the characters and the plot. The interaction of memory and trauma, personal history and national (forgotten) history in each chapter, read singly, is fascinating, but taken together they build towards an extraordinary pitch of critical energy. As the novel progresses, the extent to which the individual histories tie together becomes increasingly apparent and the tone of the novel becomes more urgent as it pulls the reader towards the conclusion.

Felipe Félix is a character divided internally, caught in the gears of a country divided within and against its own history. When we encounter Félix, his life is barely held together by his work with computers; he is an insomniac and a depressive struggling to maintain a routine against crippling headaches due to having a piece of shrapnel from his helmet embedded in his skull.

Through Félix’s internal and externalised conflicts the novel makes explicit play with the motifs and commonplaces of psychoanalysis; Freudian father-son relations, mysterious doublings and Lacanian mirrors abound, but so do the groundless doublings of virtual environments, in the form of psychedelic experience, confusions of perception and activities which defy simpler notions of Realism. As a text it is very conscious that representation contains contradictions, and the various episodes move the reader through a variety of conventional approaches to novelistic representation, always nodding to their internal problematic dimensions. Doubling is central to this; each chapter offers a different image of duplication and reflection which, in turn, double the overturned double-image of the twice-named islands, the Malvinas/Falklands which haunt Félix.

…Again and again we return to the islands…

Trauma theory has been adopted by literary study as a means of understanding cultural disenfranchisement under colonialism and under globalisation, and it has a particular relevance to the historical situations which form the background to Gamerro’s novel: political oppression and personal repression as the central driving forces of Modernist expression. I would say that Gamerro’s novel is an essentially Modernistic text in the sense that it is using contemporary frames of reference and new registers (electronic communication and computer games, coupled to the media wars of propaganda) to describe the disjunctures of perception and reality under oppressive conditions. The Islands is composed of complexes of interrelated traumas, each forming intricate reflections of one another to produce a sustained critique not just of Argentine national identity in relation to the Malvinas/Falklands conflict, but of national identity’s relationship to war.

…Again and again we return to the islands…

Fittingly, for a story thematically concerned with memory, The Islands develops in a form of double-time. The future city constructed after the fall of the regime and the lost period of the Malvinas/Falklands conflict are nested within one another through the subjective experiences of the various characters, which, in turn, are reflected in the role of Félix Felipe who performs some of the narrative conventions of Detective Fiction which might give us a structure based on Tsvetan Todorov’s ‘Double-time of Detective Fiction’. However, Félix’s role is an inversion of the Private Investigator: his task is to conceal a crime, and to find and corrupt the witnesses (Tamerlan decides this is insufficient and begins to have them killed, forcing events toward a crescendo). In this way the formal structures and themes of the novel obsessively double each other. This also extends to its relationship with other texts, from the doubly Marlovian villain Fausto Tamerlan, to the nods to Borges and Ariel Dorfman, the novel contains excesses within its structure which surpass its limits by creating other double-relationships.

It’s a novel that will reward re-reading whether for scholarly or personal interest and, from an English perspective, provides a fascinating set of insights into the construction of national identity in war from angles that are both unpleasantly familiar and refreshingly strange—Argentine and British nationalisms are another set of embedded doubles.

The Islands is a kaleidoscopic novel; what we perceive within its multiple narratives tells us as much about our own relationship to the representation of conflict and identity as it does about the particular traumas of Argentina and the Malvinas/Falklands, but it also insists that we rethink the stories we have read of that specific history too.

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Mark P. Williams

Political Journalist and Independent Academic Researcher
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