Ana María Matute’s The Island came to my attention in 2020 during the peak of the pandemic lockdown, when it was released with another title from the Penguin Modern Classics range – Sibilla Aleramo’s A Woman. The Aleramo was great, and now I can say the same for Matute.
At a certain point in The Island, the protagonist, 14-year old Matia is on the veranda with her cousin Borja, smoking cigarettes in harmony. It’s a secret but frequent ritual for the two when sleep eludes them and the quietness of the hours when the household is in slumber seems the perfect time. At such moments of contemplation and quiet companionship, Matia listens to Borja reminiscing about his past with rapt attention, or the two grumble on the state of limbo they’ve been hurled into by the seemingly never ending war. For the most part, Matia is lost in her own thoughts (“I had formed another island belonging only to me”), reflecting on the cruel and alien world of adults, the sharp realization that both she and Borja were in no man’s land, that murky space between childhood and adulthood where they felt lost with no clear sense of identity.
What an alien race adults were, how strange were men and women. And how alien and absurd were we. What strangers to the world, to the passing of time. We were no longer children. But neither, suddenly, could we say what we were.
That sense of futility and lament against a ruthless, vindictive adult world is a refrain that will run throughout the novel. Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island, then, is a dark, brilliant, deeply atmospheric coming-of-age novel set in the island of Mallorca where passions and tensions simmer, ready to erupt like lava from a volcano.
Matia, our narrator, is a wild, rebellious girl recently expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress. She is adrift – her mother is dead since she was a little girl, and she has vague memories of her father who is at the front fighting on the opposite side – with the Communists – a fact that distresses the grandmother. The father, subsequently, leaves her with his ageing housekeeper Mauricia, and Matia has happy memories of early childhood there despite the chaos of her upbringing. Once Mauricia falls ill though, the grandmother Dona Praxedes, a domineering woman, takes matters into her own hands and Matia is sent to live with her (“My grandmother had white hair rising in a wave over her forehead, which made her look irate”).
The grandmother rules her lands with an iron fist, by reputation if not in person. That intimidating personality extends to her dealings with people too including her family and those working for her. She is a sharp woman, forever perched on her chair by the window, focusing her gaze on the Slope where most of the island’s tenant farmers reside. Nothing misses her eye.
After lunch she would drag her rocking chair to the window of her private dining room (mist and gloom, the scorching, damp wind tearing itself open on the agaves or pushing the chestnut coloured leaves under the almond trees; swollen, leaden clouds blurring the green brightness of the sea) and from there, with her old jewel-encrusted opera glasses – the sapphires were false – she would inspect the white houses on the Slope…
Matia has company though, if not always welcome. There’s her cousin Borja, a sly character and a petty thief, and his timid, vacant mother (Aunt Emilia to Matia) who is patiently waiting for her husband Alvaro to return from war. Daily household chores are taken care of by the housekeeper Antonia; and her son Lauro (Borja’s nickname for him is Chinky), studying to become a priest, is employed to tutor both Borja and Matia. But cut off from the outside world, Matia and Borja are increasingly bored, fretful and biding their time, waiting for something the essence of which they can’t quite fathom.
And while we anxiously waited for news, which was always unsatisfactory (the war was barely six weeks old), the four of us – my grandmother, my aunt Emilia, my cousin Borja and myself – stewed in the heat, the boredom, the loneliness and the silence of that corner of the island, in the far-flung vanishing point that was my grandmother’s house.
Matia’s loneliness and alienation are heightened by her homesickness for Mauricia, her impression that she belongs nowhere, and her only source of comfort is her little black doll, Gorogo.
Our holidays were interrupted by a war that seemed eerily unreal, at once remote and immediate, perhaps more frightening for being invisible.
Things are further complicated by Matia and Borja’s love-hate relationship. As a teenager (15), Borja has a dubious, slimy personality with the ability to plot and connive and have his way even if it’s through blackmail (“He could be sweet and gentle when it suited him to be so in the company of certain adults. But never have I met a more pig-headed and deceitful traitor, nor a sadder little boy, than Borja”). Matia quickly discerns that he has some hold on Lauro, knowledge that gives him power to treat Lauro like dirt even under his tutelage.And yet, Matia, has no one else for company and readily tags along with Borja, even earning his respect and admiration for being expelled from school.
The island of Mallorca may be cut off from the Spanish mainland, but the ideological differences and deep fault lines are mirrored on the island even percolating down to the daily lives of its inhabitants. News from the outside, mostly about the war, filter into Matia’s world through morbid tales spun by Antonia (“They say they’re killing whole families over there, shooting priests and throwing people into vats of boiling oil”).
Indeed, violence is a permanent feature of the island fuelled by age-old prejudices that create deep fractures impossible to fill. The gang wars between Borja and Guiem alternate regularly with occasional periods of truce as fragile as water sliding off a duck’s back. These aren’t just vocal matches but involve rifles, meat hooks and other forms of ghastly weapons. But that’s nothing compared to the terror unleashed by the Taronji brothers, a couple of extreme right-wing fascists, whose death squads send waves of fear across the island leaving a behind a trail of destruction. The violence is also manifest in the treatment of minorities, particularly the Jewish community – the little Jewish square on the island is a grim reminder of the Inquisition’s persecution of the Jews, the echoes of which reverberate even in the present, accentuated by the gang wars and burning of bonfires.
Against this menacing landscape of war and violence, the lives of Borja and Matia play out. The pair smokes cigarettes in the deep of the night, they confide about their earlier lives steeped in nostalgia, and explore the island, its many nooks and crannies and secret hiding places, some of which can only be accessed by boat. It’s during one such expedition that Matia gets her first taste of real violence – on a beach cove, they come across a dead body riddled by bullets. The body belongs to José Taronji, a Jew, and thus, Matia comes face to face for the first time with Manuel, José’s son.
Because of their Jewish heritage, Manuel, his mother Malene and his two younger siblings are treated with contempt and disrespect, Malene mostly is dismissed as a ‘loose woman’. Manuel’s persona is mysterious, he is barely talkative, but there’s something good about him that’s a sharp contrast to the evil in Borja. It’s as if Borja is trying to get himself noticed by Manuel who remains indifferent, and yet as the novel progresses, Matia and Manuel strike up a friendship, the repercussions of which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Intertwined in their storyline and crucial to the plot, is the mystical figure of Jorge of Son Major, previous employer of José Taronji, who had donated some plot of land to Malene and José years earlier, and is now living as a recluse in his castle with his companion Sanamo, a guitarist. Borja idolizes Jorge which perplexes Matia, and things only get murkier when an inkling of some past friction between Jorge and their grandmother becomes palpable.
To see him, Jorge of Son Major, in his walled garden, wearing his threadbare blazer, taking refuge in memories ad dark roses, made me want to touch, drink in his memories, swallow down his sadness (‘thank you, thank you for your sadness’), take refuge in it so I could escape as he had done, submerge myself forever in that great glass of pink wine, to be filled up magically with his nostalgia.
The defining feature of The Island, though, is its vivid sense of place, an aura of otherworldliness all around (“The sun’s pink veil lay over everything, like a dream.”)
The sun was full and ripe that afternoon. We were entering a golden season of full-bodied light, shining read and mauve between the trees. A warm sun like vintage wine, which had to be sipped slowly so it wouldn’t go to our heads. We had entered the month of October.
It’s a very hypnotic, evocative novel where the languid heat of the summer and the vibrant kaleidoscope of colours lend a surreal, dreamlike quality to a book that is awash with stunning descriptions – the grey sky “swollen like an infection”, the whitening stones of walls “like enormous rows of teeth”, the fringe of golden seashells at the water’s edge “shattering like bits of crockery”, sand that glints on Borja’s ankles “like tiny slivers of tin”, and so on.
The Monsignor was playing dreamily with an opaquely initialled goblet, and its bluish crystal was like the light when it rains, beautifully opalescent. On transparent nights he drank an orange liqueur, lucid as water, and on cloudy days he drank Pernod, because he said drinks bore a strong relation to the atmosphere or the colour of the sky. (At high noon, amontillado, and in the evening, solemn and translucent liqueurs.) When he said this my mouth and nose would fill with violent perfumes; I even felt a little dizzy.
Matute’s rendering of mood and atmosphere is superb – an air of menace and creeping dread pervades the island along with a sense of loss and deep lingering sadness.
The brightness was everywhere. It was so deep inside me that everything – the perished boats, the sand, the prickly pears, my own body – was submerged in painful depths of light. I could hear the sea, the waves that were on fire and would overwhelm me with thirst.
Friendship, betrayal, the pains of growing up (the transformation from a life of innocence and naiveté to one of knowledge, treachery and even cowardice), the crippling impact of an endless legacy of violence and hatred, the cruel role of fate and destiny, how our pasts can shape up our future with damaging consequences, are some of the core themes explored in The Island. In a nutshell, Matute has written a stunning novel where the power of its themes blends beautifully with the poetry of her prose, churning up a golden-hued heady cocktail that deliciously courses through the body and is unforgettable.