Albert Sánchez Piñol
Cheryl Leah Morgan,
(Canongate)There's a whole body of Island Literature out there. The original is Robinson Crusoe, and other notable adventures include Aldous Huxley's Island, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, H. G. Wells' Island of Dr. Moreau, and the satirical Penguin Island by Anatole France, which was well summarized by one critic: "As soon as the penguins are transformed into humans, they begin robbing and murdering each other."
The champion chiller of island lore is William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, about several English schoolboys shipwrecked on an island. Several of them try to organize things in keeping with all they were taught about English rectitude and justice, but soon enough the wilder side takes over, beginning a saga of ensavagement and murder.
If you and I were to be set loose on an island with enough water and food, would we go on being genteel literate civilized human beings, Robinson Crusoes teaching civilized values to our man Friday, or would we gradually come to find the more bestial elements taking over?
On Piñol's island, the setting is not too far north of Antarctica. Each year they bring in a new meteorologist to join the rather strange lighthouse keeper and beasts known as the "Sitauca," shark-like creatures with sleek skins, otherworldly features, blue blood, and an unquenchable appetite for human flesh.
No sooner does our narrator/scientist arrive than he is attacked by the monsters. Quickly he comes to an uneasy truce with the loutish Austrian who mans the lighthouse. Their main occupation is surviving the nightly attacks of what they come to call "the toads." These guys are a riot, or, at least, that's what they do when the sun goes down. They bang against the door, crawl on each others' backs to penetrate the defenses of the lighthouse, and seem to be indefatigable in their number.
This turns out to be a very strange, scary novel that has much to say about the loves and wars between man and man and between man and beast. The first line in the book, our introduction to Piñol's world, is "We are never very far from those we hate."
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The Sitauca are not only endless in numbers, they have the ability to unhinge any humans on their island. Gradually, the Austrian Grunera and the unnamed narrator go dotty under the continuing nighttime assaults on their fortress, with declining supplies of gin and bullets and firepower. The assault turns somewhat more strange when we discover that the Grunera is consorting, daily, in the sack, with one of the blue-blooded toads.
The narrator is intrigued, gives it a try, and goes into ecstasy. He says one might think it would be like making love to "a cadaver, freshly dead" ... but then he reveals that it is "beyond ecstasy," an "extreme passion."
I had foreseen a brief copulation, sullied and brusque. Instead, I entered within an oasis. At first, the coldness of her skin sent me a-shivering. But our temperatures calibrated themselves to some unheard-of degree in which such concepts as hot and cold become meaningless. Her body was a living sponge spilling forth opium. My humanity was annulled.
§ § §
The Lord of the Flies, as I recall, quickly sweeps into the island world of decaying values and an animal-like savagery blooming in the young innocents set loose on the island. The language was simple, direct, reportorial ... but the logic was irrefutable. Cold Skin carries the same power. It is the oldest story of them all: how, given the chance, the right time, and the right place, our "civilized" values can be turned upside down, take us over. Despite our veil of religious and social civility, given the chance, the beast that lies nested in all of us will uncoil, undermining the fruits of an uncertain evolution. One is reminded of the thoughts on life and death from Huxley's idealistic Island,
Soles occidere et redire possunt;
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
Cold Skin is a hideous, wonderful book. Evidently it is Piñol's first. God save us all from the next onslaught.--- Leslie Blanchard