I’m old enough to remember the Falkland’s War but young enough to have given little thought to the Argentinian perspective at the time. If there was a legacy for the UK it was in the enhanced reputation and popularity of Margaret Thatcher; but clearly defeat would also have its consequences. This is the topic Carlos Gamerro tackles The Islands, published originally ten years after the war, and translated into English by Ian Barnett a further decade later in 2012.
It’s a lengthy volume of over 500 pages, though apparently 100 pages shorter than the Spanish original, and might be described as baroque thriller. The central character, Felipe Felix, is a computer hacker and Falkland’s War veteran, is hired by the inordinately wealthy Fausto Tamerlan to obtain the names of thirteen witnesses to a murder committed by his son. (The name seems significant: Faust suggesting the pact with devil which Felix will make; Tamburlaine the violence and death that Tamerlan leaves in his wake). It will not surprise you to learn that unearthing the witnesses’ identities will reveal a wider plot which links back to Felix’s Falkland’s experience.
The reason I describe the novel as ‘baroque’ is revealed early in Felix’s first meeting with Tamerlan. Tamerlan’s headquarters consist of twin towers made of glass and mirrors:
“There were mirrors on the walls, mirrors on the ceiling, mirrors on the floor, mirrors on the mirrors, there was nothing but mirrors, and I floated in their midst as if the law of gravity and the points of the compass had all of a sudden been overruled.”
The mirrors allow Tamerlan to observe the entire building:
“The office was apparently the point of maximum visibility: the one place from which the rest of the building became transparent – the one place with no mirrors.”
The building becomes a wonderful image of superiority and egotism that supersedes the lairs of all James Bond villains, ideas that are pursued more viscerally in Tamerlan’s ornamental turd (“It’s of great sentimental value to me”) and, most shockingly, when he sodomises his son in front of Felix:
“Unable to contain himself, he unfastened his own trousers and, grasping his son by the hips to adjust his position slightly, mounted him as if he were a bitch on heat.”
It’s at this point you realise two things: firstly, whether the novel is for you or not, and secondly, that Gamerro is a writer who will not be holding back.
Tamerlan is such an over-whelming character that I found the novel was most gripping in the scenes in which he featured (just like a villain in a Bond film). The novel works well as a thriller: we have the luckless hero, who, once he becomes caught up in events finds he cannot simply walk away; a love interest who is soon in mortal danger; a secret document; and layers of different motivation for both the crime and the cover-up.
Running parallel to this is a critique of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. Most of the characters are veterans and the plot itself takes us back to events on the islands. At one point Felix creates a computer game that allows the player to win the war for Argentina. All this culminates in a lengthy flashback to the invasion as Felix recalls what happened with a familiar sensation of being let down by those who led. This sits a little uneasily with the thriller plotline as Gamerro provides more detail than necessary, yet is an excellent piece of writing in its own right.
On the strength of The Islands Gamerro seems to be a writer worth watching (one other novel, An Open Secret, has been translated into English, with a third due next year). While a little rough around the edges it is alive with energy and imagination, with some scenes that won’t leave my memory easily!