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Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol trans by Cheryl Leah Morgan
Today's forecast: angst, fantasy, action and unidentified monsters
Monday 13 March 2006
This is an adolescent boys' adventure story, mixing existential angst, sexual fantasy and military action. The resourceful hero digs ditches, fires rifles and uses dynamite against the hordes, described variously as amphibians, fish, reptiles or near-humans. The angst is implicit in the bleakness of the island and, in case we missed it, is underlined by portentous comments: "I was at the end of the world, in the middle of nowhere."
Cold Skin deals with fear of the enemy, the unknown other. Gruner, the lighthouse keeper, and the narrator form a pragmatic alliance for survival. Is this minimal alliance all that civilisation amounts to? The narrator tries to make peace with the invaders (or defenders of their island), but his best intentions are destroyed.
This nihilist tour de force is the first contemporary novel translated into English from Catalan - a language spoken by seven million people - since 1994. It is gripping and well-written, despite lapses, yet it fails to gel as a classic fable of humanity's warlike nature.
In the annals of Troy and most subsequent stories of clashes of nations or ideas, a love story across the battle lines poses the possibility of peace. Albert Sánchez Piñol uses this ploy, but it doesn't work. Gruner has tamed one of the animals. She - for it is a she - becomes a skilled domestic servant. She is also beautifully shaped and, despite her cold, cold reptile skin, has a divinely hot sex. The narrator has the most wonderful sex ever because, Sánchez Piñol tells us, she is totally compliant and her sexuality is free from any encumbrance of civilisation. But this male fantasy of possessing a sexual slave serves to derail the novel's aspirations.
This is a beautifully produced paperback, and a competent translation. Unfortunately, some 15 early pages explaining the narrator's background as an IRA volunteer in the 1920s have been left out. The omission reduces the impact of the narrator's isolation; it should anyway be acknowledged by the publisher.
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