Wednesday, April 27, 2011

*Cold Skin, by Albert Sanchez Piñol

Originally published as La Pell Freda, 2002
translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan

"We are never very far from those we hate. For this very reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love."  With those words, Catalan author Albert Sanchez Piñol begins his tale of a young man who takes a position as a weather official on a remote island, out of the normal shipping lanes, along the coast of Antarctica.  He is the unnamed narrator of this tale, and has opted for this position to exile himself from the rest of the world, needing some time and space to "negotiate between the devastating failures that came before and utter darkness that is on its way." 

Upon landing, he is startled to find that there is no sign of the previous weather official, who is to return to the world on the very same ship.  Not only is he absent from his cabin, but the inside of his quarters is in complete disarray, with additional signs of abandon and neglect. Hoping to find the missing man, accompanied by the captain, the narrator walks to the only other structure there, the lighthouse.  There they find a man, Gruner, in charge of keeping the signal going, who refuses to answer any questions.  Refusing the captain's offer of leaving the island, the narrator returns to his cabin and begins to put his new life in order.  Things are fine that first day, but when the night comes, the narrator finds himself under attack from something not human, a group of beings who call the island home.  Barricading himself within the cabin, he fights back with what little he has.  Mercifully, the nights are very short, and when the daylight arrives, he realizes that his survival will depend on getting to the lighthouse and securing the cooperation of Gruner as well. This will be easier said than done, as Gruner has his owns reasons for remaining isolated.  The rest of the novel details their survival not only against these odd creatures, but also against each other and themselves individually.

This is a very vague synopsis, but to say more would be to ruin it for anyone who might want to read this novel. If you carefully consider Nietzsche's statement about "he who fights with monsters," you've got the very essence of the novel.  It seems at first to read as a sci-fi or speculative fiction novel (and reminded me a great deal of the work of HP Lovecraft) but it can also (and should be) read as an allegorical reflection on our fear and distrust of anything we perceive as Other.  It's also an examination of the human capacity for brutality,  as well as a look at the perils of self-imposed isolation that can change an ordinary human being into the worst sort of monster.    The ending, although purposefully vague, shores up the idea that life is more or less cyclical, and  leaves it to the reader to contemplate whether or not there is any hope for the future.

If ever there was a case for "don't judge a book by its first few pages," Cold Skin is it.  I was scarcely into it when the first Antarctic nightfall came & the attacks began, and I thought "well, I'm done with this one," as I'm not really big on books with monsters unless they're the Lovecraftian sort that live tucked away on the fringes of other dimensions, threatening to make their presence known when the conditions are right.  But I reread the back cover, noticed that the book had won some kind of literary award, and figured that they don't give out literary awards for simple monster stories, so there must be something I'm missing.  And there was. Once I was determined to get back to the book, I couldn't put it down.  While I won't call the writing brilliant (and this may be a translation issue, who knows?) , it was good enough to keep me reading, all the time wondering what was going to happen next.

Recommended, with caution -- while on one level it's a horror story, but not just because of the creatures who inhabit the sea, so people interested in Cold Skin for its sci-fi/horror aspects might be a bit disappointed in its philosophical bent.  People who read mainly literary fiction might be turned off due to its focus on said creatures, but will probably get the most out of the novel. 

one further note: A movie project is in the works, and if the filmmakers don't screw up the adaptation, it could be a good one. 

fiction from Spain

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