Dog Island

Immigration into Europe from parts of the world where war, climate change and poverty make escape seem worth almost any risk is an issue which has increasingly challenged not only politicians but writers over the last decade. How can one write about the experience of a refugee or asylum seeker while living in material comfort and having unavoidably inherited a problematic white, colonial perspective? Yet, as James Kelman has pointed out:

“As long as art exists there are no areas of experience that have to remain inaccessible.”

The question is not a moral one (of appropriation), he argues, but a technical one of narrative. And so, in Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck centres her viewpoint on a retired university professor who encounters a group of refugees; in The Death of Murat Idrissi, Tommy Wieringa’s narrative perspective is that of second-generation immigrants; and in Philippe Claudel’s 2005 novel, Monsieur Linh and his Child, the author adopts the third person (between two novels both written in the first) and has the title character befriend an elderly widow, Monsieur Bark. Now, in Dog Island (translated by his usual translator, Euan Cameron), Claudel returns to the same theme.

As with his most famous novel, Brodeck’s Report, Claudel adopts the conventions of the crime genre while at the same time recounting the events in a way that gives the novel the aura of a fable, as he makes explicit in the opening pages:

“The story we are about to discover is as real as you may be. It takes place here, just as it could have happened there… The names of the people who live in the place matter little… Put your own names in their place. You are so alike, products of the same immutable mould.”

 True to his word, the characters remain unnamed: the Old Woman, the Mayor, the Doctor (occasionally a nickname, such as Swordy, is used). The story begins with the appearance of three bodies on the shore of Dog Island, the name of which, along with its volcanic landscape, is clearly intended to suggest The Canary Islands, though, in keeping with the novel’s fabular atmosphere this is never specified, and nor is it important:

“The dog stopped all of a sudden, barked, and set off on a mad run that took it fifty metres or so away, towards three long shapes that the swell of the tide had thrown up on the beach, but which it was still tossing around, as though reluctant to relinquish them completely.”

The bodies are discovered by the Old Woman, who was once the island’s teacher, America, scavenging on the shore, and Swordy, a fisherman. The Mayor is fetched, accompanied by the Doctor, and the Teacher, who is not an islander, also appears, drawn by the commotion. The Mayor’s immediate instinct is to cover up the find:

“In a few weeks’ time you’ll tell yourself you dreamed all this. And if you speak to me about it, if you ask me anything, I’ll tell you I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The Mayor places the bodies in cold storage, asking all the witnesses to meet him later, to tell them that this discovery must be kept secret (although by this point someone has already told the Priest, who also turns up):

“Nothing, alas, will revive these three poor wretches. Letting the public know what has happened risks dreadful consequences and it will not bring them back to life.”

In particular, the Mayor is worried that the news will hamper his thermal baths project. Claudel makes the point that, while superficially sympathetic, the islanders find the corpses inconvenient. The Mayor decides to hide the bodies in the volcanic earth; they will later create a stench that one might call guilt.

The novel is plotted like a crime novel with both the hidden bodies and the disparate crew of witnesses, now yoked together by the cover up the deaths, providing tension. The Teacher is particularly unhappy with the Mayor’s decision and begins to investigate how the bodies arrived on their shore by spending his weekends on a hired boat charting the currents. In the meantime, a man arrives on the island with satellite photos of the bodies’ discovery. The Mayor immediately assumes he is with the police and dubs him the Superintendent. As is so often the case with crime fiction, the Mayor, having now set down the path of hiding the bodies, becomes evermore desperate in his actions, with the Teacher in particular suffering as a result.

Altogether it makes for a fast-paced read with a number of unexpected chicanes. While the characters may not be fully developed, neither are they two-dimensional; Claudel simply leaves enough space for the reader to inhabit them (almost as a script leaves space for the actor). The novel shows us both the greed which leads to human-trafficking and the protectionism which leads us to turn a blind eye to it. It is the Teacher who best sums up how most of us live, by refusing to live that way:

“I cannot remain on an island on which men live who are probably guilty of the worst crimes, and where other men live who prefer not to know or to forget about them so they can continue to sleep with complete peace of mind.”

Because it is a fable, or because it is a crime novel, punishment eventually arrives, a warning that not only is no man an island, no island is either.

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6 Responses to “Dog Island”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    The problem you’ve outlined in your opening paragraph is a very timely one. Our Zoom book group met last week to discuss Jeanine Cummins’ novel, American Dirt, which has attracted a whole host of controversies connected to this issue – so many in fact that it became very challenging for us to separate our thoughts on the merits (or otherwise) of the book as a piece of fiction from the issues around cultural appropriation, stereotyping and the lack of diversity within the publishing industry itself. I’ve read another of Claudel’s books (his sensory memoir Parfums) and admired his work in film, so he’s an artist of interest to me. One to keep in mind for the future, I think.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think that’s why I like what Kelman has to say about it, viewing it as an artistic rather than a moral problem. I also think that’s a much more useful discussion.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Interesting, Grant – I’ve read two Claudels I think, and ended up deciding I really didn’t want to read him again. However, this sounds a lot less like those – they certainly did’t come across as fables – so maybe I need to revise my opinion!

    • 1streading Says:

      I wonder what you disliked about him? It perhaps depends on what you read – The Investigation, for example, is quite different from his other novels.

      • kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

        I read Brodeck’s Report and Grey Souls – and I just looked back at my review and said after finishing the latter: “Yes, it’s beautifully written; yes, it’s evocative and engrossing; but it’s so unremittingly gloomy, so suffused with darkness and despair that I actually feel that I can’t ever read another book by Claudel. I’ve read many dark works in my time but this was so bleak – I couldn’t find anything in it to redeem humanity and it seemed that any characters who could be good were dead (and female).” I haven’t ever gone back to him!

  3. Books of the Year 2021 Part 3 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] genre (see Broderick’s Report) or the issue of immigration (Monsieur Linh and his Child), and in Dog Island (translated by Euan Cameron) he combines genre and theme in a tale which also has the same […]

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