The Island of the Dead by Lya Luft, translated by Carmen Chaves McClendon and Betty Jean Craige
An 18-year-old boy, Camilo, is dead, his youthful body prepared and confined forever in a coffin that now sits in a living room, attended by his estranged parents on either side. Through the course of the inaugural night that marks his sudden, violent passing, his surviving family members will reveal painful memories, distressing experiences, buried emotions, and devastating secrets. Amidst the grieving, Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin‘s painting “The Isle of the Dead” (referred to in the novel as having been “painted many years ago by a friend of [Renata’s] father’s, a copy of an original that no one had seen”) both haunts and guides the narrative.
Camilo’s businessman father Martin and concert pianist mother Renata blame each other for their miserable lives. His twin sister Carolina lies upstairs drugged, but aware her symbiotic world is now shattered. His paternal aunt Clara awaits her ghost lover alone. His adopted grandmother whom everyone calls “Mother” busies herself caring for others. Mother’s daughter Ella – an enormous, mysterious mass of crippled humanity – looms in darkness.
A bestseller in its native Brazil, Island is novelist/poet/critic/translator Lya Luft’s first title available in English. The book’s original Portuguese title, O Quarto Fechado – literally, The Closed Room, surely a more apt description of the choking claustrophobia that stifles this house of mourning – is not the only detail lost in translation. The “Translators’ Preface” duly warns that “the two languages embody two distinct ways of constructing reality” and notes the difficulties in “mak[ing] the American reader aware of the strangeness of the original text and to bring across some of its ‘secret meanings.'” In that attempt to illuminate, the translators reveal far too much before even getting to the novel’s first page. One easy fix: read that preface only after the novel itself, and then you can see if your own secret-sleuthing was accurate.
Translation challenges aside, Luft clearly knows how to unsettle readers with disturbing glimpses of murder, rape, priestly abuse and other bewildering moments of evil. Then near book’s end, Luft unexpectedly, subtly pinpoints the single moment when all the action contained in the pages before could be, if not changed, then negated: “To forbid love was to forbid life … Was that it?”
When the morning finally comes, you’re faced with quite a readerly conundrum … about the story, about fiction, about writing: just how will you react?
Published: 1984 (Brazil), 1986 (United States)