Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sjon's Top Ten Island Stories

Koltur Island seen from Streymoy Islands in the Faroes.

The Guardian June 22 2011

Sjón was born in Reykjavik in 1962. He won the Nordic Council's Literature prize, the equivalent of the Booker, for The Blue Fox, which was also longlisted for the Independent foreign fiction prize in 2009. Sjón was nominated for an Oscar for the song lyrics he wrote for Björk in the film Dancer in the Dark. His work has been translated into 20 languages. His new novel, From the Mouth of the Whale, just published by Telegram, was praised by AS Byatt as the work of "extraordinary and original writer".

"Since humanity started enjoying its stories, the remote island has been a staple in every storyteller's bag of narrative tricks. On a globe where 90 per cent of the population lives on the great land masses, to live on a small island remains an oddity that serves well as the stuff of fables, a stage for fabulous happenings, the stomping ground of fantastic beings. It can be both an object of desire (the paradise island) or loathing (the prison island) where man has to face the core elements of his existence.

"That unruly citizens were punished by being exiled to Iceland in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is a fine example of the islander's biggest nightmare: to be condemned to live on an even smaller island than they find themselves on in the first place. So, from an early age, any islander is keenly aware of the possibilities and disadvantages of his position. It is difficult to leave without great effort, and at the same time the isolation protects one from the big hustling world beyond. In an island society, all possible stories deal with stagnation being overcome by someone finding (even fighting) her way off the island or someone coming ashore and leaving everything turned upside down.

"Being born and bred on a small island is being born and bred within most other people's literary metaphor. In From The Mouth Of The Whale I take the idea to its extreme and write about one man trapped on a tiny island. For in the end all of us islanders are nothing but the bastard half-siblings of Caliban."

1. Gallimauf's Gospel by Chris Wilson

The only survivor from a shipwreck drifts onto the shores of the island of Iffe. The survivor happens to be a female monkey named Marie but is identified by the local philosopher, Gallimauf, as a noble Frenchman. Much misunderstanding follows as the learned men of Iffe, as well as the wealthy, start competing for the Frenchman's favours, trying to have educated conversations with the eccentric foreigner or marrying him to the daughter of the island's ruthless Judge. A fascinating fable about the idiocy and cruelty to be found in isolated communities.

2. Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson

Once again filled with ennui, as everything in the world has already been thought, done or written, Moominpappa moves his family to a tiny island off the coast of their homeland, hoping to find new material for a novel. There the beloved characters of the Moomin universe have to come to terms with their own fears and doubts about themselves, as well as each other. But as befits the good creatures they are, they join hands and together manage to get the island's deserted lighthouse started. So, thanks to the Moomins and their friends, the unruly seas on the outer reaches of the known world are now safer to navigate.

3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Christie's crime novel is the original "island mystery" much imitated in other novels and films. A group of 10 people who all have at one point in their lives been involved in a murder and got away with it, are invited to an island where, one by one, they are murdered in ways relating to the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers". The murders are never explained as the killer is one of the 10 and kills himself in the end. It is surprisingly nasty book that turns a whole island into a nihilistic, murderous music box.

4. The Island Of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

The remote island is – of course – a perfect refuge for the crazed scientist. On the tiny Nobel Island, Dr Moreau conducted his mad experiment of turning animals into humanoid and civilised beings. He was doomed to fail as the feral instinct couldn't be bred out of his "patients". It is a story the inhabitants of poor little Iceland know all too well, albeit in reverse. In the 90s, the country's all-seeing prime minister and his trusted humpbacks decided to turn Icelanders into immoral beasts/NeoCons. Despite the crash bringing the laboratory down for a while it remains to be seen if common decency was bred out of the nation or not.

5. W or The Memory Of Childhood by Georges Perec

In his semi-autographical novel the ever brilliant Georges Perec creates the island of W, where life is dominated by sports and competition. Alongside this imaginary story run uncertain recollections of the author's childhood. It is an attempt to view the horrors of the concentration camps from a child's point of view. The fact that the author lost his mother in the concentration camps makes W one of the most original and urgent uses of the island as a metaphor in recent literary history.

6. Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau

Chamoiseau's rewriting of the story of Martinique as a massive mosaic of stories and legends, historical facts and marvellous flights of imagination is a glorious literary creation that makes every writer from a small island gnash their teeth with envy.

7. Concrete Island by JG Ballard

A modern-day Robinson Crusoe, the successful architect Robert Maitland, crashes his Jaguar and finds himself stranded on a traffic island between three motorways in west London. Unable to leave the island he must live on what is in the car and whatever other scraps he can find. Soon Maitland's grip on reality starts to falter and after he starts meeting other people living on the island he decides to stay. Or maybe it is the opposite: the stranded architect sees things all too clearly and starts to adjust to the desperate situation as only a Ballardian anti-hero would.

8. The Book Of Revelation

"I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos ..." begins this strange text, before proceeding to let its grand visions sweep down on the island-bound narrator like a tempest. I include it here as a prime example of what can come into a man's mind should he find himself alone on an island for too long.

9. The Island at Noon by Julio Cortázar

Italian flight steward Marini, working the Rome-Tehran route, becomes obsessed with a turtle-shaped island his plane flies over at noon three days a week. He starts imagining his life there as the perfect alternative to his mundane existence. As with all good stories of paradise islands it ends with Marini's self-destruction.

10. The Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Brú

The closest inhabited islands to Iceland are the Faroes and it has always been a comfort to us Icelanders that the Faroese are 6.5 times fewer than us and their island mass far smaller. In only one field do we admit that they are our equals: that is in writing literature, and secretly among ourselves we admit that they might even be better than us in using their small world as a platform for telling universal stories. This novel, about the hapless old Ketill whose world is shaken to its foundation when he overspends on a beached whale, is one of the very best.

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