The Islands, By Carlos Gamerro (trs Ian barnett)

Don't lie to me, Argentina

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The Independent Culture

Set in Argentina 10 years after the Falklands War, and released in the UK to coincide with its 30th anniversary, this genre-mash of a novel blends the conventions of sci-fi, hard-boiled and drug fiction but is overwhelmingly a historical work. Bleak and uproarious, The Islands seems to want to break away from examining the legacy of the 1982 conflict and be a different novel altogether. But the bitterness of that defeat, and the international community's blasé attitude to Britain's imperialist stance, mean that history is not so easy to ignore.

The labyrinthine plot begins when outlaw programmer Felipe Félix is contracted by a coked-up, Nietzsche-spouting business magnate, Fausto Tamurlán, to track down the witnesses to a murder committed by his son. As a veteran of the war, Felipe has ex-colleagues through whom he can access the State Intelligence Secretariat's Big Brother-like database. He offers to design a video game for the army that will indulge a faction hell-bent on winning back the Falklands; if they can't achieve it through political sabre-rattling or outright warfare, they might as well do it playing Playstation. "[R]arefying [him]self to a sequence of algorithms that could move ... frictionlessly as a ghost" (the book has many such wonderful flashes of prose poetry, full credit to translator Ian Barnett), Felipe installs the game for the slavering top brass and extracts the files. When he realizes that Tamurlá* now plans to bump off the witnesses, however, he sets out on a danger-laden, mind-bending and ultimately redemptive quest to foil his employer.

It turns out that one of Tamurlán's sons was also in the Falklands; one of the witnesses, too, is the ex-wife of a shady army major who was involved in the war; and one of the characters he meets even argues that the interest in the Falklands is really down to a gigantic armadillo stuffed with priceless colonial treasure: "Whoever recovers the armadillo and its contents will have a legitimate right over the Islands, and until that day the question of sovereignty cannot be settled." The Islands are everywhere Felipe turns; they provide the key to the mystery of Tamurlán's son's crime and open the door onto ever darker chapters in Argentina's recent past.

The author spent parts of his childhood in both Argentina and Gibraltar, well qualifying him as our guide to the blasted wonderland through the looking glass of Britain's vestigial colonialism. Numerous characters, maddened by the ignominy of 1982, have taken to imagining alternate histories, so that there are more ideas here than most writers would fit in 10 novels. This makes the experience of reading The Islands difficult to summarise, but one of the characters perhaps gets close when, as Buenos Aires melts into a synaesthetic blur, he describes "being locked inside a kaleidoscope that was spinning at the speed of a centrifuge". Finishing it feels a little like Jack Kerouac's breathless utterance in Dharma Bums: "The whole trip had been swift and enlightening as a dream, and I was back.'"