Desolation Island by Adolfo Garcia Ortega

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Desolation Island by Adolfo Garcia Ortega

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: Ortega's weird and wonderful take on a seafaring yarn is a novel to get lost in.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: October 2012
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099516934

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In Madeira, in the first months of the new millennium, a man named Oliver Griffin collars a total stranger to explain his lifetime’s obsession with a South American island called Desolation. Griffin is a narrator as gabby as Melville’s Ishmael but twice as rambling, and what he recounts is less a coherent story than a neverending cabinet of curiosities. This magical realist take on the history of a place involves forbidden love, sixteenth-century automatons, mysterious Balkan castles, war crimes, death at sea, Jewish folklore, the personal lives of French authors and the sexual conduct of famous Spanish explorers, each bizarre strand twisted together by the novel’s own weird internal logic into one astonishing and delightful pattern.

Be warned, though: this is not a book to judge on first impressions. Open it and read its first page, and its sentences seem brain-achingly long, randomly peppered with a buckshot-spray of confusing commas. The unnamed narrator of Desolation Island recounts Oliver Griffin speaking about the speech of the people he meets (or reads about, or imagines – there’s not much difference here), and the result is a stew of clauses, with no indication of what’s real, what happened when or what on earth is really going on. If you’re used to linear (or even understandable) narratives, Desolation Island may seem frustrating and unpleasantly weird.

But give it time, and Desolation Island will work its magic on you. Sceptical to begin with, I found myself getting wound up in those strange, rambling sentences. I caught the flowing rhythm of Ortega’s language and suddenly I was hooked. Floating and unfocused, his tale moves in hypnotic circles that seem to lead nowhere. It’s clear, even if nothing else is, that the point of the novel is not where the narrative is going, but the journey the reader is on.

There is a basic backbone plot – Griffin’s quest to stand on the shore of the island he’s dreamed about and drawn his entire life – but in the main Desolation Island is a novel about ideas. Oliver Griffin shares a last name with H. G. Wells’ famous Invisible Man, and because of this he’s always seen himself as fundamentally lacking an individual identity. He constructs himself from quirky little bits of literature and history, and the result is a personality as mixed-up and referential as his story.

In Desolation Island, nothing is unique. Even the most outlandish items (that automaton, for example) have doubles. Characters exactly repeat the actions of people who lived hundreds of years before, and things that did not happen are allowed almost as much reality as things that did. Much is made, for example, of a flight that Antoine de Saint-Exupery never actually completed. It’s talked about like an important historical event, right up there with the Spanish Armada. Then there are the love-affairs that were never consummated, or never completed, or never even begun. Even Desolation Island itself, although it has a very solid geographical existence, is presented as half a myth, the brain-child of all the people who have been obsessed with it over the centuries.

True, there are so many smart-alec conceits in Desolation Island that it’s always on the edge of seeming just too knowingly quirky. It’s delightful, but its central concept that everything is connected may annoy cynics. To get the most out of this novel, you have to suspend a lot of disbelief. Do not ask why you need to be told the entire life history of little-known Hollywood director James Whale. Do not question the inclusion of robot/human sexual relations. Just go with the flow of what Ortega has written and let yourself be charmed by it.

This is a book you can get lost in. In fact, if you want the full effect of it, you have to lose yourself in it. It’s a magical mystery tour of strange places and stranger people, told by the strangest person of all. It won’t be for everyone, but almost against my will I found it incredibly beautiful and haunting. Unlike all of its many characters, Desolation Island really is unique.

For more magical realism, try The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

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Buy Desolation Island by Adolfo Garcia Ortega at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Desolation Island by Adolfo Garcia Ortega at


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