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.