The Island

Ana Maria Matute is a Spanish writer who has not been much translated into English. The Island, newly translated by Laura Lonsdale, will hopefully be a first step in rectifying this, although it has actually been translated before as The School of the Sun (the original title, Premira Memoria, has yet to be used). It is the first in an autobiographical trilogy, followed by Soldiers Cry by Night and The Trap. Matute was ten years old when the Spanish Civil War broke out and this has had a profound effect on her writing. The Island, set on the island of Mallorca, opens as the war begins on mainland Spain and influences events on the island as old divisions and hatreds come to the surface. The story is told from the point of view of Matia, a fourteen-year-old girl, who is staying on the island with her grandmother as her mother is dead, she has been expelled from her convent school, and her father has abandoned her to fight for the ‘other side’ (the family are Catholics):

“The war that had lost, shipwrecked, scuppered my father, with his wicked ideas.”

(The reference to shipwreck is surely meant to remind us of another island, Prospero’s, and the separation of father and child in The Tempest, which begins with its own civil war, pitting brother against brother).

Matia’s only friend on the island is Borja, but it is a friendship of convenience:

“We were bored and exasperated in equal measure, amid the oily calm and hypocritical peace of the island.”

Borja steals from his grandmother but is “sweet and gentle” when he is with her. Matia describes him as “weak, cruel and proud, just a good-for-nothing boy on the way to being a man.” Among those he bullies is the young man who has been hired to tutor them, known as Chinky. Borja claims to know something about Chinky that gives him power over him. Matia is indifferent to this: though not cruel, she, too, would rather roam the island than study Latin.

The title of the original translation, The School of the Sun, is easily understood on only a brief acquaintance with the novel:

“On the island I came to know the sun, which made the flowers tremble in Guiem’s garden and which pierced the mist to become a damp, slow fire evaporating over the chalices of their petals.”

The sun is generally portrayed as violent and hurtful, creating a “whiplash of light in the air.” The atmosphere on the island is oppressive: “a grey sky” we are told, is “swollen like an infection.” Even a word like ‘shimmering’ is immediately tainted by the simile which follows:

“…the sea shone a pale green, shimmering like a sheet of metal.”

The natural beauty of the water becomes something unyielding and imprisoning.

That oppression is echoed in the deep-lying tensions which exist on the island, now exacerbated by the war. As Laura Lonsdale points out in her introduction, these tensions were partly political and partly racial. Islanders with Jewish origins, even if they have long converted to Christianity, are still regarded with suspicion. In the novel Matia befriends Manuel Taronji after his father is murdered. The murder is political, but presumably sanctioned by the fact that the family are ‘Chuetas’ or originally Jewish, as can be seen from their name and red hair. They live isolated and shunned:

“…it was as if they lived on a different island, in the middle of my grandmother’s lands.”

Borja is particularly dismissive of Manuel – “Redhead. Dirty Jew. Filthy Chueta” – a dislike that becomes personal when the possibility that he is the illegitimate son of Jorge of Son Major raises its head. Jorge is one of the few people Borja admires, while also harbouring hopes of being his undeclared son:

“If there was one thing in the world he wanted… it was that one day people would talk about him as they did about Jorge of Son Major.”

Matia’s decision to befriend Manuel, and move outside Borja’s influence, is at the heart of her coming-of-age story. One particular moment of epiphany is brilliantly captured by Matute when Matia declares that the way Manuel’s family has been treated is wrong and she realises “I was saying something I hadn’t thought of until that moment, a thought still hazy in my mind.” She goes on:

“Suddenly, I lifted myself out of it all. I was myself, alone.”

What before had simply been loneliness is now also an affirmation of self, something separate from circumstances. At the same time she is aware that their friendship cannot last:

“I remember I entered a strange zone, like a stretch of unsettled waters, and with each day that passed I felt fear gaining ground in me.”

Matute plays out the tensions and conflicts of the civil war among the inter-related families of the island and, as Matia will discover, no-one will be left guiltless. The Island is a dense, demanding story which deserves to be read slowly, at the pace which one might walk in the fiery heat of Mallorca. Not only is its sense of place tangible, but it perfectly captures the uncertainties and confusions of adolescence while unveiling a pitiless political landscape.

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7 Responses to “The Island”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    On a superficial level that’s a beautiful cover, but the book itself sounds excellent. Not the kind of thing you would necessarily think of relating to the civil war and I hope the whole trilogy eventually appears. Could be the kind of thing to pick up for WIT month!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Just skimming your post for now as I’d like to read this at some point over the summer and would rather not know too much about it beforehand. I hadn’t realised that it was art of a trilogy. Possible to read as a standalone though, I take it?

    • 1streading Says:

      I haven’t read the other books in the trilogy, but I’m not even sure they feature the same characters – I think it’s more thematic. I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

  3. The Trap | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] the third novel in Ana Maria Matute’s Los mercaderes (The Merchants) trilogy, the first of which, The Island, was published in a new translation earlier this year. Originally published in 1964, it was […]

  4. Seven Books of Summer | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] novel begins with a body in the pool. This is a false alarm, but also a warning of what is to come.The Island by Ana Maria Matute, translated by Laura […]

  5. Best Books of 2020 Part 2 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] set during wartime – in this case the Spanish Civil War – Ana Maria Matute’s The Island appeared in a new translation from Laura Lonsdale. Narrated by fourteen-year-old Matia, who is […]

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