The Islands was originally published in Spanish as Las Islas. This English version is translated by Ian Barnett.
It is 1992 in Buenos Aires and Felipe Félix, a hacker and coke addict, is invited into the topmost room of a business tycoon’s twin tower. It is a room made entirely of mirrors, and there, he finds a sinister psychologist, an acrylic prism containing the business tycoon’s faeces, and the magnate himself—who proceeds to rape his son in front of Felipe before informing him that his task (which he cannot refuse) is to track down the twenty-six witnesses to a crime committed by his son in this very room. Felipe must use his knowledge as a hacker to flush the witnesses from police files and deliver their names to his new boss, whilst navigating his own drug-induced paranoia and painful, buried memories from the Falkland/Malvinas conflict in what becomes a cyber thriller, detective novel and psychological experiment all in one.
You might be thinking that this sounds completely brilliant—a kind of surreal, Borgesian thriller; or you might be thinking that it sounds completely unreadable—a slippery, unrealistic plot in which nothing will stay still long enough for you to grasp what on earth is going on. You’d be right on both accounts. It’s a dizzyingly ingenious and maddeningly tricky narrative that thrills and shocks as much as it exhausts and frustrates. It is testament to the precision of the translator Ian Barnett, who worked in collaboration with the author Carlos Gamerro, that the English-language version is as inventive, dexterous and shocking as the Spanish original published over twelve years ago.
Computers, virtual realities, narcotics and cyberpunk may provide the backdrop and plot incentive to this modern novel, but we soon realise that it’s the past that’s really driving the story, whether our narrator Felipe knows it or not. The war, the political dictatorship, the freezing, miserable months in trenches on the islands, the self-serving, brutal commanders, the guilt, the horror, the death, the final loss—all these skulk silently in the background. The islands are the quiet, beating twin hearts of the novel, exposed when Felipe eventually confronts his wartime experiences in the penultimate chapter, which is a beautiful piece of dramatic writing that is honest, terrifying and deeply moving.
But this chapter comes after a good five hundred pages of prose that twists and turns with pyrotechnic wit, and creates a complex vision of a Buenos Aires in which reality melts, disintegrates and reforms before our eyes. It is a reality obsessed with the Falklands conflict; tellingly, one of Felipe’s fellow veterans of the Falklands conflict is writing a book called A Thousand Different Outcomes to the Malvinas War. As Felipe comments, “It’s us losers who are left to fret over the multiple possibilities of history.” Verraco, too, a sadistic and tyrannical commander now part of Argentina’s Intelligence Services, is another example of someone who has a demented obsession with the islands; he has commissioned Felipe to create a computer game of the Falklands conflict in which Argentina will emerge victorious. Virtual realities, it seems, are more comforting than actual reality.
If the Falklands conflict is the heart of this novel, it is through a distorted and kaleidoscopic viewing glass that we read and understand it. Mirrors, spiders webs, chaos, hierarchy, pyramids, order, disintegration, control and inversion are all images and concepts that are repeated over and over again, forming a labyrinth of illusion and deception. This is brilliantly introduced in the grotesque and despotic business magnate Fausto Tamerlán and his twin towers. “There were mirrors on the walls, mirrors on the ceilings, mirrors on the floor, mirrors on the mirrors… there was nothing but mirrors.” As Felipe travels up the tower he realizes that the mirrors are all one way, so that the floor above can always see the floor below (but not vice versa), and that the topmost floor can see everything below: the ultimate hierarchy. We wonder which is worse, “the towering chaos below, or this unbearable order into which it finally resolves itself”, and we come to understand that “this madness was order run rampant, unfettered to reality, the mania of purely mental order yearning for the perfection of the diamond.”
The Islands is shot through with a similar spectacular verve and manic surrealism; however, this novel is also a victim of its own inventiveness. Long and verbose—over five hundred pages, even after one hundred pages were cut from the original—The Islands sometimes buckles under its own weight of ideas and originality. Genre-bending it may be, but it is also trying rather hard to be too many different things—hundreds of different stories and styles crammed into one—and often demands a lot of the reader without giving much back. Gamerro will whip through a passage that you might want to linger on, before wading through a visceral and limp description you’d rather skip over.
Despite this uneven ground, The Islands is an electrifying novel that plunges us into a densely mirrored narrative so ingenious and layered it is hard to summarize. Its satirical, labyrinthine prose may be its obvious selling point, but it is the shattering and painful descriptions of war, post-traumatic stress disorder, memory and redemption that lift The Islands from madcap writing experiment to dramatic literary victory.