Carlos Gamerro – The Islands

By 14 January, 2013

Carlos Gamerro’s The Islands starts in the impressive company of Fausto Tamerlán, a man as devilish and compromised as his name suggests. He is an unapologetic plutocratic kingpin happy to create dystopia and a fitting conduit for the many realities of the story. This is a man with a large tampering turd imprisoned in Perspex as a paperweight, who opines, “The turd never lies.” When could you ever say that a turd augured well or was a talisman? Vamos a ver.

What we do know is that Tamerlán occupies the world of endless and pointless opportunity – a juggernaut of consumption – which clips through the world like a lawnmower across a bed of orchids. Perhaps it was too much to hope that a man who stepped off a ship in 1945 with his German officer father, would offer a more agreeable perspective than a mirrored hell.

Later it comes as no surprise that Tamerlán has a congressman under his desk snaffling at used coke wrappers like a sniffer dog. The plutocratic eminence grise – whom Buñuel and Dali – could have created, pulls the strings throughout the story.

Call of booty

Our hero, Felipe Félix, is a Malvinas vet, a computer hacker and sometime video game maker, who comes into Tamerlán’s path via a knock on the door from one of his henchmen. Felix is a somewhat feckless individual, who but for one particular skill, would be indistinguishable from many of the other shattered pieces which the Malvinas left behind. As he says later, “We left a precise space when we left, but we changed shape over there, and when we got back we didn’t fit into the jigsaw anymore…”

Alternative realities

He’s enrolled by Tamerlán – with little choice in the matter but at some considerable reward – to find witnesses to a fratricidal accident or murder. Being able to hack into the police computer network is a piece of cake for Félix, who has the way in via Lieutenant Colonel Verraco, an intelligence nut and former Malvinas vet, who wants to create in cyberspace what reality failed to deliver – an Argentine victory.

He’s not alone in this. Professor Citatorio, a lunatic historian, who regales ex-vets with tales of the Serpent of Jerusalem, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and culminates it in his very own ejaculation: “Argentina is an erect prick, and the Malvinas are its balls.” How many times have we heard that in some form from our political masters?
Thanks to Kevin, a US-based contact and fellow hacker, for a price, Félix can get the latest war game platforms and this gives him the necessary access to upload for Verraco whilst he downloads for Tamerlán.

Cain and less able

The preamble is that César – Tamerlán’s second son, a homosexual who is sexually and morally abused by his own father – has killed Fausto Jr. by pushing him from the top of the Golden Tower in Puerto Maduro in a battle for succession. The body of Fausto Jr., whom everyone thought never returned from the Malvinas, then goes missing. Nevertheless, with 26 witnesses to the act in the neighbouring Silver Tower at the time, whatever it was, Tamerlán has unfinished business. Did his heir return from the Malvinas? What happened to the body? What should he do about the witnesses? What could 26 inductees to a Ponzi scheme entitled Spanish Surprise – a bitter historical irony on the indigenous population of the Americas – possibly have seen? Who is Félix?

History repeats itself

The narrative is an extraordinary mix of themes and tones, all of them complimenting the parts and comprising an impressive sum. Major X/Arturo Cuervo’s diaries – are part-Swift, Voltaire and Bernal Diaz, part-tedious military inventory, dictated to a private with a photographic memory, who suffers a brain injury and is now confined to an asylum. Cuervo now sits laboriously at his bedside transcribing them from stream of gibberish. The story darts around through Argentine history from the general to the particular.

Cuervo is a goon, part of the military establishment that “disappeared” and brutalised witnesses and opponents in a manner which Tamerlán soon turns to with the 26. This contrasts with Félix’s own memoire which offers the real grandeur of humanity rather than the ersatz variant so beloved of the powerful. The ingloriousness of misery may be well trodden but in the telling it never is. There is Ballard and Pynchon in the style, too, part-Crash, part-The Crying of Lot 49, searching out the many realities which are the ultimate theme of the book.

Gamerro displays great lyricism, too, in his descriptions of the land of la pampa – the sky and the plain, the urban fabric of Buenos Aires and the becalmed watercolour of Rio de la Plata. He also has a poet’s touch on the visions and themes he explores throughout the story.

It’s a triumph. It’s a thriller, too, so there’s no point giving away too much.

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