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The Islands

by Carlos Gamerro

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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The Islands by Carlos Gamerro
© And Other Stories
And Other Stories Publishing, June 2012

The Islands is a plate-spinningly good swirl of Thomas Pynchon, Roberto Bolano and vintage Richard Powers: an absurdist, nationalistic dredge through the Falklands War set in Argentina during the early 90s tech-boom. Felipe Felix is an Argentinian hacker and a veteran of the Falklands War hired by Senor Tamerlan, a wealthy executive, to solve a mystery: an unknown man was pushed to his death from the top of one of Tamerlan's twin towers. Utilizing his technical expertise, Felix is to hack together a list of witnesses and track down any clues relating to the victim and the perpetrator.

With each new chapter, Gamerro shoves his readers down slippery trenches as Felix unrelentingly investigates each involved party. These chapters routinely derail into a glorious and surreal account of tangential, buried memories; his inquiries always strike a nerve and open a slew of hidden themes, many of which will not feel especially relevant until later in the novel. For example, early in The Islands, Felix needs to distract an old acquaintance at his desk for long enough to discreetly cull together names that may have been in attendance at a meeting the night of the fateful tower push. To do so, Felix sets the man in front of a new game that was just developed, which is essentially a jingoistic mod of Sid Meier's Civilization. While Felix is busy scanning hard drives, Gamerro takes his readers through a pixelated, shell-shocked reenactment of The Falklands War and Argentina's subsequent victory and world domination. Felix gets his list of names, which turns out to be a member roster of participants in a pyramid scheme of sellers hawking wares by a company suspiciously called "Columbus."

Somewhere between The Falklands, computer games, and national identity, Gamerro shows his hand early in the novel: underneath the digital, contemporary tangents of The Islands there is a nation still licking its wounds. The war is still very much raging within its survivors, and while the "fight" may not linger, the desire to win, and become unwaveringly proud of their homeland, still throbs along, ever-present under each of Argentina's advancements.
Like The Falklands's East/West geography, Gamerro's The Islands is consistently split between two sides. Thematically, much of the novel is bisected, populated with characters and ideas in a peculiar interim. Opening the novel with two monumental skyscrapers and a body thrown between them suggests a certain physical resonance, but the splitting of The Islands exists within its characters on an internal plane as well. One character spends a monologue talking of the merits of ambidextrousness ("It's like your body being bilingual, see?"), while another talks about how Argentina invaded the wrong island: "we were pursuing a mirage: it was the other island that was the real thing. We mistook the reflection for its object." Felipe Felix himself is pulled toward the Argentina of the past, prone to exhuming the trauma he and his fellow countrymen endured in 1982, but the future calls as well. His pursuits in computer science seem to be his only motivator, and are instrumental in his success with Tamerlan. Perhaps racing towards the future is the only way to be relieved of the past.

But can a war ever leave someone? Halfway through the novel, Gamerro plunges deep into the back story of Gloria, a single woman who mothered two handicapped twins from some unforgettably atrocious wartime abuse. The children, aptly named Soledad and Malvina, open a difficult track in The Islands, and it's unsettling to find that Gamerro's madcap, satirical prose settles here and sticks with the war. Felix's time on the battlefield sneaks back into the foreground of The Islands with increasing force as each chapter unfolds, finally resulting in a somewhat perfunctory collision of plot threads. What lingers, though, is a confounding sense of mortality and detachment:

"...let the bomb fall a little further off, not bury us alive, let it hit some other hole; deeper inside, the flesh and viscera twisted in pain, head throbbing...; even deeper, all the hatreds, guilts, regrets and accusations of imagination and memory, the furious search for real or invented culprits, the urge to die, the abject promises to a God that, if He ever looked at us, would be zapping to another channel in His boredom -- and finally, the long-awaited tiny present at the core: a fear so pure and perfect that a single drop falling on the surface of the soul annulled your identity and conquered your fear of death, because at the point of impact you stopped praying 'I don't want to die' to beg the last, tiny alms of existence: 'Yes, I do, I do, but not here. Not like this.'"

It's a sobering core to find beneath such a captivating juggle of threads and ideas. Ultimately The Islands feels like a novel constantly at war with itself, attempting with every chapter to distract readers from its true nature, to go through the mirror and turn, finally, into something it could have been.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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