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The Islands (Gamerro) — book review

Having abandoned one of my ‘chunksters’ (Stendhal’s The Red and The Black), I thought I’d better start on another. I bought Carlos Gamerro‘s The Islands (English translation by Ian Barnett, in collaboration with Gamerro) about two years ago when I saw him speak at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference. I hadn’t really heard of him before, but he impressed me so much in the conference — clear, precise, not backwards about coming forwards — that I thought I’d like his writing, and the blurb of this book persuaded me: “A detective novel, a cyber-thriller, an inner-city road trip and a war memoir”.

Although a chunkster, this is a quick and pleasant read. The prose trots along at a quick pace, funny and stylish. I read almost half the book in one day (on two trains, going between Strasbourg and London). From Chapter 1, I had a sense of entering a more ‘adult’ or disturbing China Mieville fantasy landscape, and with the central character a self-proclaimed ‘hacker’, I was starting to expect shades of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which I didn’t quite get, although there were brief flashes of it now and again.

Whilst the blurb trots through a range of genres, this book is, at root, a novel about homo argentinus, about his drives and delusions and sense of lack. The Falklands/Malvinas war is a convenient hook on which to hang this meditation, but the guerra sucia and Argentina’s connection with fleeing Nazis post-WWII both inform the novel as much as the 1982 conflict.

In meditating on Argentinian masculinity, there is an obvious Faustian theme, coupled with that of empire-building Tamerlane, which Gamerro exaggerates and almost spoofs. The spider at the centre of the web is Fausto Tamerlán, who Gamerro makes surreal and almost absurd in his glass-and-mirrors surveillance tower, accompanied at the top by his psychoanalyst, his ruthlessness and the power of wealth bringing a sharp edge. The protagonist hacker, Felipe Félix, manages to avoid being too self-pitying or serious by a wry sense of humour and an air of nerdiness — both about computers and about the machinery of war — that gives him a simultaneous authority and adolescent air. 
Gamerro is unflinching in describing the grotesque and the surreal with the same clarity and seriousness as the factual and banal, although ‘factual’ is at times a hazy label in this book! There are distinct moments where the reader feels either in the dark or simply bewildered, looking for the logical jump, looking for the break that might come between reality and a distorted narratorial perception thereof. The franknesses about horrible things that seems to come from the author is a refreshing contrast to the duplicity that at times shadows the voice of the narrator. 
I’d highly recommend this book, and as soon as I find a minute this weekend in going to hunt down the Spanish original to read Gamerro’s prose in its original medium. 
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