Book Of A Lifetime: Island, By Aldous Huxley

 

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The Independent Culture

Looking at my shelves, I spot two dusty paperbacks with creased, wrinkled spines. The pages are discoloured. 'Big Sur' by Jack Kerouac and 'Island' by Aldous Huxley. I bought them in the Philippines in the early Seventies. 'Big Sur' has comments from me on the back page. I haven't done that since.

Although Kerouac was probably the writer who got me writing (he made it look so easy), my youthful comments are harsh. "The problem w/ K is that he only describes and rarely works at evoking". So 'Island' has to be my choice today.

This was Huxley's last novel, from 1962. An antidote to 'Brave New World'. The years have made a wreck of my copy. The cover is brittle, barely attached. If I open the book too much the pages will crack and fall out. But it is a book I have re-read. There is a 1977 Birmingham-London British Rail timetable marking page 25 where Will Farnaby, a disenchanted journalist, talks about a military dictator on an Asian island and the ugly interests of a multinational petroleum company. Prescient?

Huxley in the Sixties was a counter-culture icon: part of the intellectual establishment but revered by the young for his psychedelic experiments and heady talk of freedom. He put a lot of that into this novel about an island paradise governed by reason, love and a dose of liberating moksha.

I discovered the book from a friend of my father's, Tarzie Vittachi, the veteran Sri Lankan journalist, who would often bring new ideas from across the world into our house in Manila. I remember him speaking one boozy afternoon about Huxley's vision of a truly civilised society: an idyllic island of ecological balance.

Tarzie was the one I confessed to, years later, about wanting to be a writer. His response then was to give me a copy of Márquez's 'One Hundred Years of Solitude', not yet so famous, and say, "Read that if you want to know what fiction is going to be like from now on." It put me back years as I struggled with a magic-realist novel set in Asia until Salman Rushdie blew that idea out of the water, luckily, and freed me to find a different kind of voice.

But to get back to the 'Island'. Here was a book not afraid to blend radical ideas into straight stories. And he did try to evoke a place and give his characters a chance to escape his grip.

It may not be a great novel, like Márquez's epic, but it gave me more sustenance in the longer run. The idea of an island as a world, paradise wanting. I have had a bit of fun with the surreal from time to time, but the shape of an island has been far more bewitching for me. And so from an island with a reef, in my first novel, I have moved now to an island with a prisoner for my new one.

Romesh Gunesekera's new novel is 'The Prisoner of Paradise' (Bloomsbury)

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