The Islands by Carlos Gamerro is narrated by a Falklands/Malvinas war veteran with a piece of shrapnel fused into his skull. He literally cannot get the war out of his head. Because the war is there all the time in his head Felipe spends a good deal of time trying to get out of his head. This book is full of drugs. It is also full of cruelty, sex and pain. The characters are all broken or damaged in one way or another, either by the war or by the military regime that started it. A narrative that begins as a kind of murder mystery quickly disintegrates into something a lot more interesting.
Imagine if you will a kind of literary kaleidoscope. Smash up the writings of Haruki Murakami, Borges and Denis Johnson. Add a dash of Michael Herr's Dispatches. Pour the fragments into your kaleidoscope and put it to your eye. Start to twist the tube and watch the coloured patterns form, shift and reform into a different shape. Keep turning. This gives an approximate idea of what it feels like to read this astonishing novel.
Waves of cyberpunk, sci-fi and magical realism crash against the rocks of state torture and almost journalistic descriptions of war. There is a lot in the novel and it is hard to cram everything into a short review but if I tell you this book transformed the way I think and feel about the Falklands conflict it would be no exaggeration. The Argentine troops were mostly conscripted. A lottery. A knock on the door and all of a sudden you are part of the mad scheme of a dictator. Next thing you know the General Belgrano has been sunk with the loss of 323 lives. Shortly after 2 Para arrive:
"They come at the open mouths of the foxholes from the sides and the back, not caring which, and stick the barrels of their rifles and machine guns right inside to make sure they don't miss, then drop a phosphorus grenade in to make sure and step aside to dodge the white flash, then move on to the next position to repeat the procedure, methodically, like weeding a field. You might have wanted to surrender, but they aren't asking questions."
The description above concerns the battle of Mount Longdon. Much of the novel is factually accurate including the ill treatment of the conscripted soldiers by their own officers.
"Our own officers were our greatest enemies", says Ernesto Alonso, the president of CECIM, a veterans group founded by Rodolfo Carrizo and former conscripts of the 7th Regiment. "They supplied themselves with whiskey from the pubs, but they weren't prepared for war. They disappeared when things got serious."
What this novel made clear to me was how the abuse of power creates traumas that can never fully heal. A dictator abuses his people with torture. He decides to start a mad war. It is his people who suffer once again. We could be talking about Saddam, Hitler or any other dictator - it is the people who suffer.
So there we go, a demented novel that somehow makes a powerful point with great clarity. It isn't often that I feel a novel really affects the way I look at things. In this case it did. I urge you to find and read a copy of this important novel, a book that took 14 years to be translated into English - thanks to And Other Stories Press - despite the fact we are so caught up with what it has to say.