Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Las islas extraordinarias

Las islas extraordinarias, published in 1991, follows an unnamed private detective hired by a henchman’s dictator to investigate and defuse a possible conspiracy against the tyrant of a three-island archipelago. A large sum of money eases his moral qualms for the time being and he travels to the Islands to start his mission. This is the kind of oddball premise I’ve come to expect from Gonzalo Torrente Ballester.

We don’t know much about the detective’s life, he has a minimal personality; he has no past to speak of, save a reference to a wife (Isabella) whom he divorced and who is now happily married; apparently he still phones her from time to time, but not this time. He clearly has a moral side like the best detectives, and this shows in the novel’s denouement. But sixty pages in I began realising this was not an ordinary detective novel. For one thing, no actual detective work had been carried out so far. Clearly GTB is less concerned with a mystery than he is with creating a pretext to organize and bring to life a series of scenes of live under a dictatorship. By no means is it a realistic dictatorship; as with everything else I’ve read by him, it leans towards the grotesque, the burlesque, the buffoonish. But notwithstanding this exaggeration he creates a world that reflects our own in its relationship with dictatorships, and explores the true meaning of power.

“The last edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed me of certain data regarding the history of the Islands, of their geographical situation, of the reason why, them being so close to my country, they’ve remained independent, although their economy complemented our own in a certain way, and they depended as much on us and we did on them: this reason being why my country had always remained in the margins of the political circumstances that dominated the Islands, of its always extraordinary regimes and of whether or not they complied with the minimum social conditions that permitted us to consider them a country similar to our own.” This is interesting. So close and yet so far, like in our world; those who are lucky to live in free states know from television and newspapers that dictatorships exist, and yet they’re mysterious, distant places, a bit like enchanted kingdoms in fairy-tales. And yet it’s ironic that the archipelago can be reached from the continent via a simple bridge. And notice the little critique of democracies: dependent on dictatorships for their economy, they turn a blind eye to the regime’s crimes.

The detective operates by questioning his Excellency and his family: his son and wife, who rule the second and third islands, respectively. First he meets the dictator. After passing through several control checks in the vast palace, he arrives at his office. He’s warned not to smoke in front of him, an advice he wisely follows. His first meeting with the dictator leaves him with a clear idea of his ruthlessness. The tyrant orders coffee for both; a servant brings a tray in; the tyrant orders the servant to taste the coffee. The servant tastes it and falls dead, under the dictator’s indifferent gaze. “Don’t worry. For these cases I have a coffeepot ready, next to the rum that I offered you. But it’s sad not being able to trust in the personnel, don’t you think?” His Excellency also gives him valuable information that may help him, not to solve the case, but to operate more clearly inside that bizarre society. “To sum it up: approximately each month there’s a conspiracy against me, whose chiefs are promptly punished. These conspiracies are organized by government agents. I know their development hourly. They don’t worry me, as you may imagine: they’re an instrument of power that I wield with certain dexterity. But there is another conspiracy which I haven’t started, which I haven’t organized, and that’s the one you have to find out. You ought to read these reports in order to be aware of the others and not get confused.” Like every great politician, his Excellency knows the usefulness of inventing one’s own enemy to keep the masses under control.

The detective’s trip across the archipelago brings him into weirder aspects of that nation. The second island contains the “most important scientific centre in the world.” “Did you know that NASA depends on us? Of course we also depend on them, but it’s our initiative.” They’re so strategically important the civilized, democratic world pretends the centre doesn’t exist. “Every country is our potential buyer.” And so they’re protected and kept hidden from the world. “Somewhere in the Third World they’ve denounced us, but the denouncing was received as fantasy. Those who don’t believe in the existence of this centre are right and that’s why they’re wrong: they don’t believe in the incredible, and that’s what we are. However, for once the incredible is real.” The dictator’s son rules the second island, kept under martial law, and is the military chief, the man who administers justice and is known for “having sent lots of people to the other world.” Effectively he’s the most powerful man in the world. The dictator’s wife rules the third island, called the Island of Vice, a den of crime, drugs, brothels, casinos. The islands are self-sufficient and money circulates inside them without loss, for what is earned on the other islands are spent on the third one. A final note on their economy: they make money from customs taxes. “In our docks, in our airport, ships and airplanes, loaded with merchandise whose nature doesn’t matter to us, buy, sell, barter without any other requisite but paying, thanks to which our seaport is the busiest in the world, and our airport the most visited.” In other words, they’re a purely capitalistic society, without regulation on whatever passes through them, and obviously with the consent of the free world.

The detective’s guide, secretary and driver is Gina, who works in the palace. She hardly has any self-will and the detective tries to instil some of it in her again. She’s mostly a prop, really, to give exposition, lead into the climax and explain the bizarre sexual politics of the islands. Gina is one of the women randomly chosen to bear the dictator’s children, which means she’s state property. Raised into that society, she’s deeply honoured to participate in the creation of the new ruling class; they intend to produce a new aristocracy, although some idiots show up. “Those, when the day comes, will be docilely suppressed.” So they also practice eugenics. It’s a very complete dictatorship.

As the detective takes in these horrors one after another, he begins to wonder where the poets are:

“Here we don’t know of anyone who writes verses. Not even those who praise power and the powerful.” “And if one were to appear?” “I suppose we’d send him to the Isla of Vice.” She slowed down and looked at me. “Don’t you understand? Any poet would be a disturbing element.” “There are those who show talent.” “Here, those with talent have their place reserved and well paid. We don’t buy more brains than necessary.” I started imagining: the drama of distraught adolescents, constrained to use their talents in bureaucracy, or in the improvement of war ships. “Sometimes poets are incoercible and inevitable. Can’t you think of anyone? Not even a national poet, those who proclaim with enthusiasm the superiority of their fatherland over all other fatherlands?” “That’s so obvious we don’t need poets.”

My favourite character is Professor Martin. I’ve always O’Brien from 1984, the bureaucrat who spills diatribes about control and obedience. Professor Martin is an O’Brien-esque figure, the thinker who provides the intellectual framework to justify everything through reactionary clichés, upsetting the “old mental structures” that the detective was born with: democracy is “the suppression of superior men;” equality “is the weapon of the mediocre to triumph in the world and in society.” “We have to think that man, whoever he may be, is an accident, no more no less than a rock or an insect. His existence is justified by his function. If he can’t function, what’s the point of keeping him?” “He said that people needn’t think, said that it was dangerous that people thought for themselves, said that people needed a satisfactory thought, said that it was especially convenient that people believed that they thought for themselves. There were two dailies on the Islands. Opposed in their expression, even though both started from the same principles and arrived at the same conclusions. People followed one or another and thus believed to freely elect their way of thinking.” What’s despairing about this is that GTB is clearly describing any ordinary democracy, with its citizens’ belief that they’re under control, that they’re not being manipulated by the media. This is all to conclude with Professor Martin’s philosophy in a nutshell: “People need to believe they think…”

As for the actual conspiracy, yes, well, there’s not a lot about it. After investigating, the detective concludes there’s nothing to go on; the island is a highly stratified paradise of order and peace. There is no evidence of a conspiracy, no one talks about it. There’s no sense of it, no rage or violence in the air. The only people who could throw him down are his son or wife, but they’re content in their little kingdoms, and anyway the dictator’s power is illusory. “His Excellency doesn’t govern; he just rules.” He’s a title, a job, a position, he doesn’t give commands or orders. His son has all the power and could crush him. He’s just an old man who’s tolerated and allowed to carry on with his farce. The detective intends to quit, but that’s not the end of the story.

Las islas extraordinarias is my fourth Gonzalo Torrente Ballester. In invention and in ambition it does not reach the heights of La Saga/Fuga de J.B and Fragmentos de Apocalipsis. It's a rushed, short narrative. But even his minor efforts have a special flavour. His gift is to create and pepper his narratives with otherworldly situations; in essence he fulfills one my requisites for writers: to write sentences I never imagined logically possible.

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month.


  1. I've added Torrente Ballester to the to be read pile; your posts on him have been invariably intriguing.

    1. Scott, I'm glad to know that. It'd be good if someone else carried the torch for a while; it can't be just me promoting him on the blogosphere.

    2. Oy. Well, I can find only one of his books translated into English: The King Amaz'd (Crónica del rey pasmado). Still more frustrating: he does not appear to have been translated into French at all.

    3. Oh, Scott, I think this is the second time you complain there are no French translations of his work. Indeed there are, and quite a lot:

      Start wit La Saga/Fuga de J.B., you can't go wrong with that masterpiece!

    4. Thanks, Miguel - I don't know why I couldn't find this. I'll see if I can obtain a copy.

    5. Scott, read whatever you can, it'll be great to have another GTB fan around.

  2. I liked hearing about one of your "requisites for writers: to write sentences I never imagined logically possible," and GTB once again sounds like he delivered this in spades. However, I'm more and more certain that I'll be starting with La saga/fuga de J.B. once I finally get my GTB groove on. Thanks for this follow-up contribution to Spanish Lit Month, by the way!

    1. Richard, it's been a pleasure to join the SLM.

      I certainly look forward to reading your thoughts about GTB, and La Saga/Fuga de J.B. is the best place to start. He's been one of the most recent exciting discoveries; I've even started to buying books about him.