The Malvinas Strike Back
Review by Christopher C. Guider
Just pages into Argentinian author Carlos Gamerro’s sprawling, genre-bending novel The Islands, we meet one of the most chilling and repulsive characters in contemporary literature: Fausto Tamerlán, an industrial magnate who oversees his empire from atop two glass towers that dominate the skyline of Buenos Aires. Tamerlán’s power is nearly absolute, but he’s in a bit of a bind: His unstable son César pushed a man to his death, and there are multiple witnesses who must be identified and silenced.
Enter the main character, Felipe Félix, a professional hacker and Falklands War veteran with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his skull. Tamerlán offers Félix a sizeable reward if he can steal and deliver police files on the witnesses. As a kind of initiation, Tamerlán hands Félix an “acrylic prism about the size of a gold ingot, with a long, opaque object inside” and then reveals its provenance: a turd. One of his own, no less.
Disgusting, to be sure, yet also laugh-out-loud funny. But the very next scene takes things to entirely different level: Félix is forced to witness a coked-up Tamerlán sexually abusing his son in horrendous, bestial fashion. Meanwhile, Tamerlán’s live-in psychoanalyst watches approvingly and christens Tamerlán a Nietzschean übermensch who has heroically transcended all morality!
This kind of quick jump between the darkly comical and the just plain dark is a trademark feature of The Islands. And this applies not just to the detective story plot, but also to the novel’s true subject: the psychological aftermath of the Falklands War, a short-lived conflict in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom over a sparsely populated archipelago in the South Atlantic. The Islands is a gripping portrayal of both the tragic and tragicomic ways in which the Falkland Islands (a.k.a. Islas Malvinas) have sculpted the personal and national identities of Argentinians for generations. “Argentina is an erect prick ready to breed, and the Malvinas, its balls,” says an aggressively patriotic character in the novel. “When we recover them, fertility shall return to our lands.”
As Félix explores leads for Tamerlán, he experiences the never-ending aftershocks of the war that reverberate through Argentinian society, particularly among the veteran community. Ignacio, ex-soldier and friend of Félix, spends countless hours constructing a true-to-life model of the Malvinas that reproduces “every stone, every window, every fence, every participant.” And at the request of his former commanding officer, General Verraco, Félix programs a computer game called “The Malvinas Strike Back.” The game recreates the 1982 skirmish, but is rigged so that the Argentinians flout the British soldiers every time. Verraco immerses himself in the game, eager to embrace an alternative history more aligned with his fantasies. Like so many characters in Gamerro’s novel, Verraco’s identity revolves around a denial of defeat and an irrational dream of one day recapturing the islands.
The title of the video game is apt: The Malvinas do indeed strike back by continually bombarding Félix and his compatriots with traumatic memories and frustrated national ambitions. “There are two bits torn out of the hearts of every one of us, and they’re the exact shape of the islands,” says one character. Félix and his fellow combatants stumble through the labyrinthine passages of The Islands as ghostly presences, doomed to continually relive and reenact the wounds of history. But the novel’s darkly comic tones offset some of this heaviness and create a more fluid reading experience. And this irony-laden humor has a very specific purpose: While The Islands conveys the trauma of the war and the injustice of Britain’s colonial exploits, it also repeatedly critiques and lambasts Argentina’s out-of-proportion fixation on the Malvinas at the expense of more pressing concerns. So although Gamerro vividly depicts his characters’ genuine wounds, he also underscores the tragic absurdity of the idée fixe that blinds them to all other considerations.
Christopher C. Guider holds a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature and has published numerous articles on the relationship between memory, place and photography in twentieth-century works of literature.
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