Maverick Life

BOOK REVIEW

Battling ghosts from the past and building walls: ‘An Island’ by Karen Jennings

The Island cover. Image: Supplied.

Karen Jennings’s ‘An Island’ which recently shortlisted for the K Sello Duiker Memorial Award, and longlisted for the Booker Prize earlier this year, is a moving, bleak tale of violence and memory set in an unnamed African country.

“The sea is History.” – Derek Walcott

According to Karen Jennings, her latest novel, An Island, was extremely difficult to write. Part of the challenge lay in her personal circumstances at the time: living in an apartment on the 17th floor of a tall block in an unfriendly city in Brazil, unable to speak Portuguese and cautioned against venturing into unsafe streets, she was left alone for ten hours every day while her husband went out to work. Her situation, she found, began to resemble that of her protagonist, Samuel, an elderly lighthouse keeper who lives alone on a small island, and sees no one apart from the two men who bring him supplies each fortnight.

But part of the challenge also lies in telling a compelling story about a man who has virtually no social life. Samuel spends his days on the island engaged in a variety of more-or-less menial tasks. He waters and composts his vegetable garden; he feeds his clutch of chickens; he clears the tenacious “smotherweed” climbing the walls of the flaking lighthouse tower. With a sledgehammer, he breaks rocks to build a dry-stone wall around his garden — and then continues with the wall around the perimeter of the island itself. A page-and-a-half of the slim novel is devoted to a description of Samuel’s cleaning and chopping of vegetables for dinner. 

Jennings used her solitude in Brazil to craft these activities into compelling nuggets of realism, providing just the right amount of detail — and subtly portentous allusion — to draw the reader along. While paring vegetables, Samuel remembers that he needs to manure his garden soil. He divides the plot into sections in his mind, “slicing the air with his knife as he imagined it”.

When the body of a refugee washes up on the beach, Samuel’s concern, in keeping with his pragmatic habits, is mostly with the problem of its disposal. It is the thirty-second such body to float ashore in the twenty-three years he’s lived on the island. He has long since given up on notifying authorities about the bodies, because they have made it clear to him that the only bodies they are interested in are those which can be linked to atrocities committed by the former (now deceased) dictator. 

Refugee bodies, which do not fit into the current national narrative of healing and restitution, are someone else’s problem. Samuel’s solution, on a rocky island where burial isn’t possible, is to seal the bodies into the furthest reaches of his dry-stone wall, where at least the gulls can’t pick at them, and “where the smell of decay would not reach him”.

Samuel’s make-do attitude — his repurposing of limited resources on the island for day-to-day life — is reminiscent of one of his famous literary island-dwelling forebears, Robinson Crusoe. In drawing on the heritage of realism initiated by Defoe, Jennings’s style keeps the reader distracted, at first, from the potentially macabre symbolism of a wall bulging with refugee bodies. Likewise, we understand, if somewhat uncomfortably, why Samuel would be more interested in the oil drum that has washed up alongside the body (he can use it to collect rainwater for his vegetable garden) than in the body itself. The realism, in other words, directs our attention to the practical aspects of Samuel’s situation, keeping the dark, troublesome currents swirling around his story in the background.

But when Samuel detects a pulse in the body, the order of his life on the island instantly begins to fray. He lugs the man up to his cottage in a wheelbarrow and, under the inquisitive gaze of his chickens, lays him out on a carpet. Unable to stomach the thought of a stranger intruding into his life, he flees from the door, hoping that the man will die.

The man recovers. Samuel clothes him and feeds him, and takes enough pity on him to conceal him from the supply boatmen when they arrive the next morning. In the days that follow, Samuel spirals into a paranoid conviction that the refugee, with whom he doesn’t share a language and whose name he can’t pronounce, wants to kill him. 

A haphazard game of cat-and-mouse ensues — a game in which, one suspects, the smiling refugee has only the vaguest idea of the role into which his erratic host has cast him. Samuel is visited by a series of long flashbacks to his life on the mainland. In the richly imagined story that unfolds of his poverty-stricken childhood, his falling in with a group of revolutionaries, and his long, cruel incarceration under the regime of the dictator, we gradually discover that the seeds of his exaggerated fear on the island lie in the traumas of his past. The question of whether he will be able to overcome this legacy of violence is largely the dramatic tension around which his stand-off with the refugee revolves.

Other reviewers have noted that the unnamed nation in which the story is set doesn’t seem to correspond to any particular African country. Events that carry a whiff of contemporary South African history — xenophobia, the toppling of statues — crop up against a backdrop of colonial brutality, dictatorship and present-day disillusionment and decay that might locate Samuel’s country on any corner of the African continent (or, for that matter, on another continent). Nor does the geography of the barren island betray proximity to any particular stretch of African coastline, leaving readers to sift for clues in ambiguous physical details like the fact that the cliffs along the northern shore are “worn smooth by wind and rain”. 

Its allegorical non-specificity sets the nation’s story at an oblique angle to reality and contributes to a kind of spectral, or haunted quality in Samuel’s recollections of his life. One has a sense that, like the grainy VHS videotapes he watches from time to time, the memories he returns to on the island are artefacts of a forgotten world, a place left behind by the creep of change on the mainland, where 24-hour petrol stations and shiny new malls built with “oil sheikh” money have reorganised the landscape.

Samuel’s psychic entrapment in this land of memory is borne out by his inability to return to the mainland when the supply boatmen persuade him to give it a try. “You don’t have to be afraid,” they say. “It’s not like it was. We’re free people again”. But when Samuel relents and goes with them, a suffocating vision of crowds pressing in — reminiscent, perhaps, of his time in prison — forces him to go back to the island without having set a foot onshore. 

He returns to his solitude and builds a wall to fortify it, hewing bricks from bare rock (another leftover from his prison days). Increasingly, the careful attention he gives to cultivating his life on the island, rendered in Jennings’s fine naturalistic style, begins to seem like a concerted effort to secure a place for his own identity, rooted in a painful past that is being swept away by inexorable currents of change. The sea, we learn, is what Samuel fears the most on the island. It is the thing he builds his wall to keep out: its “churning waters” threaten him, and he does not like “the things it littered on the shore”. The wall stuffed with bodies is no longer just a practical solution to the problem of burial; it is also a grisly warning to the world-at-large to leave the hermetic lighthouse keeper in peace.

The refugee’s arrival on the island disrupts Samuel’s life by forcing him to confront the darkness of his past. It is also a sign — indelible, impossible to bury or ignore — that his fortifications are failing, that the machinations of history are once again threatening to overwhelm him. 

The supply men show him a viral video of a boat packed to the brim with refugees, sinking beneath the waves. It is some kind of “international incident”, they tell him, and the authorities are starting to pay attention. 

Other, ominous changes also surface from the surrounding ocean. Chimelu, the elder of the supply men, tells Samuel that a fisherman caught a “half-starved” shark in his nets, and that it is “the worst fishing season in living memory”. Chimelu’s son, Winston, scoffs that the fishermen say the same thing every year, meaning to imply that it is an exaggeration, but on the contrary confirming that the ocean is slowly transforming itself into a record of degradation on a planetary scale. The “vast surrounding sea”, at first little more than a buffer between Samuel and the mainland, becomes both the medium and the message of upheavals that threaten to engulf the tenuous relationship he has worked out with his bitter past.

Even the oil drum that washes up alongside the refugee in the opening pages of the novel attains a grim significance in this oceanic transformation, hinting at the vast networks that sustain our global fossil fuel addiction. 

Samuel’s act of violence at the novel’s climax is a tragic emblem of the long psychic afterlife of trauma and suffering, and a desperately sad indictment of the ways in which the lives of ordinary people, in Africa as much as in other parts of the world, are scored by successive, and successively brutal, configurations of state power. But it is also a complex, knee-jerk refusal to accept the flotsam of a new history drifting in from the sea: refugees, oil drums, sharks that starve because there is nothing for them to eat.

The heritage of African writing, to which Jennings’s novel adds its voice, is steeped in an awareness of the tragic, and often fatal consequences of misreading history when it arrives on your doorstep. Elsewhere, Jennings has written about history as a fluid, ever-changing system of stories of the relations between ourselves and other people. 

Sometimes, she says, when we are afraid that our own narratives are at risk of being erased, we stop investigating history, and risk becoming stagnant in the process. That is why we have an obligation to keep on interrogating the past as fully as we are able to. If there is a lesson to be had in An Island (I hasten to add that, to the story’s credit, it doesn’t trade in easy morals), it is that this obligation never comes to an end. We cannot, like Samuel, retreat to our little enclaves of memory and build walls to keep out the world. Even those of us battling ghosts from the past — and maybe especially those of us battling ghosts from the past — need to keep our noses to the wind, to the strange new forms of relation blowing in from distant shores. DM/ ML

Dr Eckard Smuts is a postdoctoral researcher in the English Department at the University of the Western Cape. An Island by Karen Jennings is published by Karavan Press.  

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