The loss of innocence is one of my favourite themes in literature. It’s a thread that runs through many coming-of-age novels, including Agostino by Alberto Moravia, Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. Ana María Matute’s 1959 novella The Island – recently translated by Laura Lonsdale – is an excellent addition to the list, a darkly evocative narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. I loved it.
The story is set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Also living in the house are the family’s housekeeper, Antonia, and her son, Lauro, who acts as the children’s teacher and companion. At fifteen, Borja is a duplicitous boy, smart enough to behave sweetly in the company of his grandmother but sufficiently malevolent to show his true colours when her back is turned.
He affected innocence and purity, gallantry and poise in the presence of our grandmother, when in reality […] he was weak, cruel and proud, just a good-for-nothing boy on the way to being a man. (p.5)
Borja is particularly cruel to Lauro, whom he calls ‘Chinky’, confident in the belief that he can leverage a shameful secret the tutor is harbouring. Matia, on the other hand, has been expelled from her former convent school for kicking the Prioress. Consequently, the children’s grandmother – a tyrannical old crone who keeps watch over the neighbouring tenants through her opera glasses – considers Matia to be disobedient and in need of taming. In truth, however, Matia is simply confused and lonely, the product of a disruptive childhood short on parental love and affection – now firmly in adolescence, a time of turbulent emotions for any young girl.
One of the things Matute excels at in this novel is her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting. While we might consider the Mediterranean islands to be idyllic, Matute’s Mallorca has a radically different atmosphere. In reality, it is a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions.
Throughout the novella, the author makes excellent use of the natural world to reinforce this impression of danger. For example, the sun is frequently portrayed as intense, blistering and ferocious, mirroring the island’s capacity to breed violence and inflict damage on its inhabitants.
A cruel sense of violence, an irritated fire burned above, and everything was filled, saturated, with its black light. (p. 53)
The sea, too, can seem threatening, a volatile force with the potential to unnerve.
From high up in the square, where the Jews had been burned alive, the sea was like a deep, blue threat, terrifying and unsteady, mixing with the wind and sky. And it seemed that shining worlds could disappear there, and rootless echoes wander and be lost. Looking down, it seemed that everything must roll down to meet it. And life seemed both terrible and remote. (p. 80)
Menacing associations are everywhere on this island from the damaged agaves, their ‘edges withering like scar tissue’ to the stony soil, ‘an accretion of the dead upon the dead’. The torrid atmosphere is further augmented by the sickly aromas in the abuela’s house, a heady blend of jasmine, leather and cedar, plus the smoke from Aunt Emilia’s Turkish cigarettes.
Matute is particularly adept at setting her narrator’s internal anxieties against the island’s broader political and racial conflicts. Consequently, as the novella unfolds, Matia becomes increasingly aware of the violence and injustice that surround her. At first, Matia falls in line with Borja, the two children playing chess with one another by day and holding whispered conversations together at night. Nevertheless, there are certain developments that Matia doesn’t fully understand, things that she hears or observes that seem confusing, particularly when taken at face value. Unsurprisingly, this strengthens her impressions of the adult world as a mysterious, potentially dangerous place.
But there was something about life, it seemed to me, that was all too real. I knew, because they never stopped reminding me, that the world was wicked and wide. And it frightened me to think it could be even more terrifying than I imagined. I looked at the earth, and I remembered that we lived upon the dead. (p. 76)
In her desire for a bit of warmth and friendship, Matia begins to gravitate towards Manuel Taronji, the son of a neighbouring family persecuted by the locals for their political allegiances and Jewish heritage. In effect, Matia sees Manuel as a kindred spirit, someone she can talk to openly despite his outsider status as a ‘Chueta’. Borja, however, takes a vehement dislike to Manuel, particularly when it emerges that he might be the illegitimate son of Jorge, the powerful islander whom Borja clearly worships.
During the novella, we learn that Manuel’s stepfather, José, was murdered by the local fascists – the jack-booted Taronji brothers – for his Republican leanings. The fact that José was killed by members of his own extended family illustrates the strength of feeling surrounding the Nationalist movement, with supporters being prepared to kill their own flesh and blood to further the cause. Moreover, it gives a sense of the complex network of connections between the island’s inhabitants, encompassing familial, racial and political dimensions.
While Borja and his teenage contemporaries fight one another with butcher’s hooks, these various episodes of violence are punctuated by reports of the broader conflict in mainland Spain, typically relayed through hearsay and secondhand information.
(‘They say they’re killing whole families over there, shooting priests and putting out their eyes…throwing people into vats of boiling oil…May God have mercy on their souls!’) My grandmother would look shocked, but her eyes would shift a little closer together, like siblings whispering dark secrets to one another, as she listened to these morbid tales. (p. 3)
Alongside these depictions of brutality at the time of the Civil War, Matute remains alert to the atrocities of the past, reminding us that the island has long harboured prejudices against the Jewish community. For example, there are mentions of ‘the square, where the Jews had been burned alive’ – a direct reference to a case in which three Jews – including one named Taronji – were burned alive for refusing to denounce their faith. These echoes between past and present acts of barbarism add another dimension to the narrative, reminding us that prejudices can run deep if they remain unchecked.
As the novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her.
In summary, then, The Island, is a dark and visceral novella, beautifully executed through Matute’s lucid prose. This combination of a highly evocative first-person narrative and the oppressive atmosphere is somewhat reminiscent of Carmen Laforet’s Nada, another excellent Spanish novel set around the time of the Civil War.
The Island is published by Penguin; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. I read this book for Stu’s Spanish Lit Month – more details here.
This reminds me of a novel I posted on a few years ago: Lydie Salvayre’s Cry, Mother Spain, also set partly in Mallorca during that terrible war. I’ve long meant to read Matute.
Ah, yes – I remember that book! It has quite a striking picture of a woman on the front cover, if I recall correctly. Thanks for the reminder, Simon. I’ll take another look at your review.
I’m pretty blown away by the description and will invest in a copy. Truly it strikes me as one of the novellas I don’t want to miss.
Cool! It’s an excellent book, just the kind of story I like as it combines a memorable central character with a dark atmosphere and vivid sense of place. Let me know what you think, whenever you get a chance to read it – I’d love to know.
That does sound visceral and probably Too Much for me but also an important document as well as a compelling work of literature.
Yes, the political / historical dimension is a very important aspect of the book, and I think the author does a great job of conveying the various layers involved, both past and present. It also highlights the myriad of connections that may exist between different individuals in a ‘closed’ community, e.g. how ‘separate’ families might be related to one another despite the apparent segregation.
You’ve highlighted everything I love about this novel – the use of the setting (‘malevolent’ is right), the complex tensions, the moral ambiguity. I have since read another by Matute (this is the first in a loose trilogy) but I didn’t find it as effective.
Thanks, Grant – that’s good to hear! I think at one point Matute (or Matia) describes the earth as ‘evil’, almost as if that sense of malevolence is part of the island’s fabric, a fundamental component that feels hard to escape. That’s a shame about the other Matute you read. I didn’t realise this was part of a loose trilogy…all the more tragic that the follow-on book didn’t live up to the initial promise (assuming that was the one you read).
Wonderful review Jacqui! This sounds so atmospheric and oppressive. I think novellas suit that sort of tension so well.
Yes, absolutely – there’s a real sense of intensity to it, partly due to the ferocious heat. Lengthwise, it’s around 190 pages – so, technically speaking, it’s a novella on that metric. That said, Matute manages to pack so much into the narrative that it feels a novel with various threads and layers. A very impressive read!
Wonderful review of a very atmospheric work (love that quote about looking at the earth and remembering we “lived upon the dead”.) By sheer coincidence, I just finished Laforet’s “Nada” a few weeks ago, which created a similar and quite overwhelming feeling of oppression and dread. What’s particularly interesting to me, however, is that Laforet seemed to steer clear of any overt political references (probably how she managed to be published under the newly empowered fascist government); so that I, at least, saw the menace and oppression emanating from family and culture. I’ll click over shortly and read your review.
Back, however, to Matute! I’m totally unfamiliar with her work, but she’s now marching along with the others in my endless TBR list!
Thank you. Yes, it’s a very visceral quote; all the more sinister when set against the persecution of the island’s Jewish residents. And how timely to hear that you’ve just finished reading Nada! I loved that book for its haunting, Gothic-like atmosphere and highly distinctive narrative style. The way that Laforet conveys her protagonist’s inner life is incredibly impressive, especially given her age (23, I think?) at the time of publication. And you’ve made a very good point about the nature of the political references, how subtle they are compared to Matute’s use of them here. In Nada, I think we see the destructive effect of the war coming out in the dysfunctional nature of the family — and in the apartment’s Gothic-like atmosphere, to a certain extent. At least, that’s my memory of the novel six or seven years down the line!
I’ve only skimmed your wonderful review Jacqui because straight away I could tell this was a read for me, thank you!
Marvellous. I’m glad you like the sound of it, Jane!
Great review Jacqui and you give such a strong sense of what the book is like. The cover is ingtriguing as it initially looks bright and cheerful until you realise the person pictured is hiding – from the son, and possibly people. Very apt, as this does sound remarkably dark, and I love the fact you’ve drawn out the use of weather and landscape to create atmosphere. That quote really got me, particular the part “From high up in the square, where the Jews had been burned alive, the sea was like a deep, blue threat…” which just drops the violence into the description in passing with devastating effect. Families can be the worst and under that kind of regime life must have been very difficult…
That’s such a good point about the cover! Very well spotted. Now I’m wondering how deliberate that was on the part of Penguin, particularly because the way you’ve expressed it is spot on, very much in line with how Matute ‘paints’ Matia in the novel. Even the way her body is curled up is highly significant, a sense of Matia wanting to disappear within herself away from the sinister adult world. You’re bang on too about the way Matute just drops the occasional reference to violence into the text like that, catching us off-guard so to speak when our attention might be elsewhere…
The theme of the loss of innocence is definitely one thst appeals to me. The atmospheric setting and mood sound particularly evocative. And a narrator that the reader can become fully invested in. Definitely not a novel I had heard of before. Great review.
Thanks, Ali. You’d like this one, I think. Not that you need any more book recommendations right now, especially with your forthcoming move!
A book right up my street and one for a foggy, rain-soaked winter day! I’ve mostly skimmed your post though until I can read it, but must say the quotes caught my attention anyway.
Excellent! I’m glad you like the sound of it. Definitely a book that captures the intensity of the summer heat if you’re finding the winter too dull and chilly.
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Alluring but malevolent…that should be a shelf/category! Heheh
At first, I was thinking about Francoise Sagan, but more for the allure, and then it took a dark turn into early Rumer Godden but I suspect it’s darker than either of those, in the end?
Interestingly, a couple of other readers have also mentioned Sagan and Rumer Godden in relation to this one — particularly Bonjour Tristesse (which I have read and loved) and Greengage Summer (which I have not). The Island is more visceral than the Sagan, for sure, partly because of the violent incidents in the past and present timelines. That said, the sun and blistering heat are definitely similar – in both books, these forces of nature have the potential to cause damage, adding to the intensity of the mood.
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