First published in 1959 with the title Primera Memoria, Ana María Matute’s novel The Island has recently been published in English by Penguin Modern Classics, with translation by Laura Lonsdale. It caught my eye on social media, with an extract that is available here before I learned that July is Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos. Isn’t it great when the reading universe aligns like that…
The Island is set on Mallorca during the early part of the Spanish Civil War. Told in the words of Matia, an adolescent girl staying with her grandmother, aunt Emilia and cousin Borja, the story unfolds over one summer. Long before they became holiday destinations, these islands were darker places, riven with feuds that go back centuries and always have a chance of exploding into bloodshed, especially as the sun beats down and makes everyone’s blood boil. There is a large cast of characters with Matia and Borja’s extended family, the other teenagers they hang around with and adults of varying social levels that they encounter, all extremely well-drawn by Matute and used by her to show the interlacing loyalties and conflicts that the islanders must navigate. The sun and the wind are also almost characters themselves, with the wind howling down the Slope towards the house, or suddenly dropping, leaving them to the oppressive, unwelcome sun.
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.
Matia and Borja’s grandmother is one of the big landowners on the island, happiest when keeping an eye on her tenant farmers via a pair of bejewelled opera glasses. News of the war takes time to arrive, but whispers of atrocities are ever-present. Borja is a mini-tyrant, with his father away at the front, his mother stays in her room reading old love letters and letting the teenagers steal her cigarettes. Matia notes how her cousin is adept at ‘affecting innocence and purity, gallantry and poise’ around their grandmother, while remaining, ‘weak, cruel and proud, just a good-for-nothing boy on the way to being a man.’ Ostensibly, the teenagers are being taught by the maid’s son Lauro, but instead they are running rings around him; Borja having a hold over the tutor that Matia has heard hints of but doesn’t understand.
The advertising – and even the extract – led me to expect The Island to be a coming of age tale similar to Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer, with the civil war in the background, but it is far darker. There is a sense of creeping dread as the summer progresses, taking in dead people and animals, drunken teenagers fighting with butcher’s hooks and plenty of gossip, misunderstandings and machinations. In the town, local fascists the Taronjí brothers, ‘in their high boots and half-unbuttoned military jackets,’ ensure people ‘kept their eyes firmly on their ankles when they passed by.’
Matia is lost and drifting, at an awkward age, still clinging to her doll, her mother dead, her father away fighting, most likely on the wrong side as far as she can tell from her grandmother. But even before they were gone, her parents’ relationship was shaky and Matia’s brief, cherished moments of childhood nostalgia relate to time spent with her father’s old nursemaid. Matia is desperate for affection, jealous of the care his mother Antonia takes over Lauro, and casting around for someone to be kind to her.
Anyone who has not been moved around constantly between the ages of nine and fourteen, changing hands like an object, will not understand the hostility and rebelliousness that characterized me then. And in any case, I never expected anything from my grandmother…
“We’ll tame you yet,” she said, no sooner had I arrived on the island.
I was twelve, and for the first time I understood that I was there for good.
The house is the kind of dingy chaos that the upper classes enjoy. The maids only clean the rooms that are in use, plumbing is mysterious, and mealtimes are mainly for practicing stifling yawns and dreaming of escape. The family cling to a position propped up by their grandmother’s connections. The parents of their friends are happy that their children are associating with the ones from the ‘big house,’ while the bored rich kids, largely ignored by authority-figures until it all properly kicks off, are capable of leading everyone into the same dissolution they are surrounded by.
I had questions but they were old and confused and nobody ever answered them… There was something prison-like in my surroundings, some deep sadness. And everything came together in that feeling I’d had my first night on the island, the feeling that someone, some day, was going to play a trick on me, though I couldn’t have said what or when. To my left the rocks rose black against the mountains and the forest. Below shone the sea. I felt strangely afraid, as I had so many times before. How could they leave me like this, out in the wide world, abandoned and ignorant as I was? How could they?
Matia is drawn to outcast Manuel, little realising that the consequences she will draw by publicly befriending him will land on him not her. This being the time and place that it is, no one is likely to get what they want. Equally, as the book was written and published during Franco’s reign, Matute had to be clever in how she depicted the conflict, with the centuries-old persecution of the Jews mirroring more recent behaviour towards the Reds. The war is national, soon to be international, but on the island it plays out in fights between gangs of kids, building into feuds between families who share names or blood and have lived alongside each other for generations, resentments multiplying as the sun blazes down.
A content note about the translation
There is a note at the start of The Island about the historical persecution of the Chuetas (Jews) of Mallorca but it struck me as strange that nothing was said about the translation of Lauro’s nickname – which appears in Primera Memoria as el Chino – but is rendered in English as an offensive word that isn’t ‘the Chinese.’ I found it jarring to read of a character being called a slur with no explanation or acknowledgement of its use from publisher or translator and wished they had left the nickname in Spanish. If a translation asks English readers to cope with abuela, I think they can be trusted to work out that Lauro’s nickname – while also still used between friends or family in the Spanish-speaking world – is being used in English to show that the children feel contemptuous towards him, or that attitudes and words have changed since the time depicted in the story.
The Island is taken from my list of 20 books of summer ’20. Although perhaps too unsettling for a light summer holiday read, it is a book that will stay with me and I hope to read more from Ana María Matute. How is your summer reading going? Are you reading any works translated from Spanish for Spanish Language Literature Month? As ever, let me know in the comments below!
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Author photo via Instituto de Mayores y Servicios Sociales (IMSERSO), Ministerio de Sanidad, España / Attribution
Stained glass window by H. Zell / CC BY-SA
Very keen to read this at some point. The darkness and creeping sense of dread make it sound all the more appealing…
It’s definitely unsettling, you can tell something terrible is going to happen, just not how and to who… It’s also quite tricky to review without giving away spoilers, so would love to know what you think if you do get a chance to read it!