The Islands by Carlos Gamerro
And Other Stories
Paperback, 545 pages
‘History is nothing but assisted and recorded memory’, says George Santayana in The Life of Reason. ‘The picture we frame of the past changes continually and grows every day less similar to the original experience which it purports to describe.’ To recall or record the past is always to reshape or reconstitute it. The Islands, for all its cyberpunk, future-world elements, is a novel about the past, about the sanguinary history of Argentina in the second half of the twentieth century, and about how the individual makes sense of it. The eponymous islands – the Falklands, Las Malvinas – are at the centre of this history. Located some 300 miles east of the mainland, these two rocks are historically important to a degree which belies their remoteness. The Falklands, and the 1982 conflict which Britain and Argentina fought over them, are far from remote in The Islands,which is a complex and ambitious exploration of how history is memorialised, and how the act of remembering changes and distorts that which is being remembered. It is the story of what happens to people when they cannot bear to remember the past, but are unable to forget it. If not entirely successful, The Islands is engagingly bleak and provocatively discomfiting. Its madcap narrative lodges in the mind of the reader, and resonates long after the book has been put down.
Lodged in the mind of Felipe, the otiose antihero of the book, is a piece of metal. He acquired it as a young Argentine officer fighting in the Falklands War. He literally cannot get the Falklandsout of his head. History is for Felipe and the other conflict veterans of the novel what it was for Stephen Dedalus: a nightmare from which they are trying to wake up. There is a visceral energy to the narrative of the book, at the centre of which is a murder investigation in reverse, in which the murderer is known from the start, whilst the witnesses to the murder are not. Felipe, a systems security specialist (‘in a word, hacker’), is charged with finding his way into the database of the state intelligence services in order to discover the identities of twenty-six individuals who saw it happen. Felipe is conscripted into this investigation by the murderer’s father, Fausto Tamurlán. Although a megalomaniac in the Lex Luthor mould, Tamurlán, who has perhaps read a little too much Nietzsche, in fact wants to be Superman. The novel begins with Felipe being summoned to Tamurlán’s headquarters in the Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires, a giant twin tower structure with walls and floors made of one-way mirrors that allow superiors to look down on those beneath them, without being themselves seen. In a novel which plays on the relationship between information and control, Tamurlán’s Panopticon becomes a symbol of how one way to suppress individuals is to restrict the data they have access to. It is no coincidence that the central character of such a novel is a hacker.
Over the course of Felipe’s investigation, forgotten histories emerge unbidden. Argentina’s Dirty War provides the invidious source of many of these memories. During this conflict, which overlapped the Falklands War and was in many ways the cause of it, political dissidents and left-wing activists frequently vanished from the streets of Argentina’s cities. A galling example of a state rewriting history so as to efface personal memory, their bodies were disposed of in such a way as to leave no trace of their death. These victims came to be known as los desaparecidos – the disappeared. The Islands is a compelling account of how the processes of ‘assisted and recorded memory’ are not merely fraught and problematic, but often deeply sinister.
In The Islands, it is not only the state who struggles to rewrite the past. The veterans of the conflict are convinced that what happened in 1982 should never have happened. Powerless to change the course of history, they engage in various acts of historical rewriting, editing and outright excision. One solution is to drug the painful memories into submission, and acid-fuelled evenings provide one means through which empirical reality can be distorted to the point of avoidance, and memory replaced with hallucination. A more ambitious approach is to actively re-imagine the past, and Felipe uses his technical know-how to write computer programmes which not only simulate war but allow actual wars to be recalibrated and their outcomes rewritten. This way Germany can be given the atomic bomb before the Americans, MacArthur is able to nuke China in 1951, and – most important of all – Argentina can win the Falklands War. Such programmes allow the user to be the subject of history instead of its object, to manipulate history instead of being roughed up by it. Real life, the novel makes clear, allows for no such control. Instead of certain, predetermined outcomes life presents absurdity and non sequitur. If, in conveying this, the novel appears superficial, its superficiality is a highly crafted, willed flaw. Felipe is thereby never allowed to understand or penetrate the situations he is confronted with, and ideas in this novel are less fleshed out than reflected and refracted, like images in a hall of mirrors.
The publication of The Islands thirty years on from the Falklands conflict is significant in that 2012 has been more than just a jubilee year. The islands have resurfaced: two rocks on which Anglo-Argentine relations may again run aground. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the President of Argentina, has recently addressed Argentina’s claim to the islands to the United Nations. Britain has been uncompromising. Both states have adduced their own particular historical narratives and attempted to pass them off as definitive. Both have shaped and distorted the past to justify their respective claims. The Islands shows such processes to be ineluctable. Such narratives are forever being forged and reforged in the smithy of collective memory, memory that is ‘assisted and recorded’. If history is nothing but this, it is no less important for it. As the possibility of another Falklands conflict becomes less remote – a potentially non-virtual war game – Gamerro’s novel is a timely reminder of another of Santayana’s aphorisms: that those who cannot remember the past are often condemned to repeat it.