The Island (1959) by Ana María Matute

Getting ready to write this post, I realised it’s been three months since I posted on here. I honestly didn’t realise that much time had passed. That is this pandemic life – time has completely changed. Living in this weird in-between state of anxiety and hesitancy with little pockets of “normal life”, with hardly any events or noteworthy expeditions, means that my bearings are completely lost when thinking about what happened when. I’ve lost that sense of how many weeks, months, since this or that happened. When did we last see those friends? When did I last get my hair cut? When did we go there and do that? Sometimes reading can help with this sort of thing and provide an anchor – you remember the last few books you read, and you remember what you were doing when you were reading them. And that has helped a little this year. I have finally been able to give myself more time to read these last few months and it has been a godsend. It is up to me to spend the time – I can’t just wish I “had more time to read”. No one is going to give me time. I have to take it for myself. In the last few months I have re-read The Goldfinch, which is a whole other blog post, and I’ve read three more books since then. One of those was The Island by Ana María Matute. 

I came across this book when I was browsing PMCs, and I think I was drawn to it partly because it’s a coming-of-age story but also because of the setting. I knew nothing about Mallorca in the 1930s, only a few vague bits of information about the Spanish Civil War. For whatever reason I love reading novels with a setting that’s completely new to me, perhaps because it adds a layer of discovery and makes the whole experience more original in some way. A completely new journey. And I am always – often – drawn to coming-of-age stories about and by women. 

The Island is narrated by 14-year-old Matia. After her mother’s death, her father sent her to live with their housekeeper Mauricia, whom Matia loved; but then onto a convent school. Matia gets expelled from the school for kicking the prioress, and sent to Mallorca to live with her grandmother, an unfeeling matriarch who belittles everyone around her at every chance she gets – all before the story begins. Also under the grandmother are Matia’s aunt Emilia and cousin Borja, along with the housekeeper Antonia and her son Lauro, who serves as Matia and Borja’s tutor. He trained as a priest but was sent home for some mysterious reason, which we get a hint of at certain points in the story. Matia and Borja refer to him by an incredibly racist nickname, which I won’t repeat and which is very off-putting, but I just tried to read it as his actual name in my head and put it down to contextual ignorance and prejudice. It’s awful but it’s not actually important to the story, other than a demonstration of their mockery of him. 

Matia’s island has its own unique culture. The introduction for the book gives us a bit of history about the persecution of Jewish people on Mallorca and how they were burned in one of the town squares by the Inquisition. This is referred to as “the Jewish square” in the novel and is where the gangs of teenage boys burn bonfires to signal a fight is about to start. This history provides a terrifying undercurrent to the ostracism of the Jewish boy Manuel Taronji and his mother, and to the menacing Taronji brothers, Manuel’s own relatives, who patrol the island persecuting those they dislike. Everyone on the island seems to be intertwined and related, with names being repeated, or very similar, in a way that leaves the reader wondering why exactly they all seem to hate each other so much. 

The Civil War hangs over the island in the background, surrounding them from afar and threatening to push through and become a real, tangible problem for Matia and her family at any moment. Meanwhile she lives in a shared isolation, avoiding her grandmother, enduring lessons with Lauro, and running around the island with Borja and the other boys. They have their own little world and mythology that envelopes them and I think, in a particularly teenage way, stops them from seeing the importance of anything beyond it. 

The rivalry of the gangs, the hierarchies, and all their little rules and rituals govern the teenagers’ lives and hold a lot of power over them. But so does the mythology of their families, their histories, and the island. They ostracise Manuel for being Jewish, a “chueta”, without really knowing why, and they revere Jorge of Son Major – the man in the castle on the hill. This hugely reminded me of the Señor in Mercé Rodoreda’s Death in Spring – a mysterious aristocrat who secludes himself from the insular society, below maintaining a wall of mystery around himself, along with the walls of his home. Except here, in The Island, we do actually meet this mysterious man in a section full of imagery, surrealism, and slow realisations. 

I think many characters in the novel go through some kind of realisation, revelation, or metamorphosis. The teenagers start to grow up and the adults start to realise the truth of their situations, both personal and in terms of the Civil War. Matia and Borja go through the most changes, in many ways being forced to grow up before they might want to. Matia is a shrewd observer and I think sees most of the changes that everyone goes through. She herself goes through something of a philosophical shift over the course of the novel, changing her mind about some things and moving beyond others. She ruminates on her parents, her lost happiness, and her complete lack of power over her own life in a way that is intense and personal but also incredibly relatable. Her narration is sometimes intense, hugely vivid and atmospheric, and entirely engaging. We feel everything she does, we share in her experiences and inner life, and the whole thing is incredibly cinematic. I could just see her standing on the rocks with her hair blowing in the wind. I could see the houses on the island, the sea, the sunburnt boys running around in their worn leather sandals. In these small, intense ways and in the larger story and themes, The Island is a beautiful book; beautiful and sad, like Matia. Though her situation on the island is specific there is a universality to her personal experience and the changes she goes through. The whole world has gone through a sort of metamorphosis through this pandemic, and my own life is evolving as well. This year I have questioned so many of my past behaviours and choices, dug deeper into some of my automatic thoughts and decisions, and reconsidered things I thought I could not change. I have looked back at my life and asked questions, I have related past experiences to present ones, and I have made more positive changes than I ever have before. I think by the time this particular phase of life begins to pass, I too will have gone through a sort of metamorphosis. 

*

Originally published as Primera Memoria in 1959; I read the 2020 Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition, pictured above, which was translated by Laura Lonsdale.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery (affiliate links).

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