Book review: Desolation Island – Adolfo Garcia Ortega

Book review: Desolation Island by Adolfo Garcia Ortega

Originally published in Spanish with the title Automaton, Desolation Island follows a sea voyage taken by Oliver Griffin, a character that the narrator meets at a bar. The book consists of a series of conversations between Griffin and the narrator in present day Madeira.

Ortega’s narrative blends actual historical characters and events with minute, apparently fictitious detail. At one of their first meetings on the Avenida Zarco in Madeira, Griffin explains that the church of Santa Clara, near their café, is the site at which the Eighteenth Century mariner Philip Carteret ‘was held and threatened by his men’ while on an expedition under the command of English navigator, Samuel Wallis. This mixing of fact and fiction is remarked upon by Griffin: ‘Invisibility, he continued, that was so important in relation to my own life and name, also shaped my island: first it was fiction, then reality, then fiction again. Like my own name he stressed [sic].’

The island, an imagined place which Griffin admits to drawing frequently, is given a physical location – Desolation Island in the Straits of Magellan – becoming the object of Griffin’s seven thousand mile journey. Griffin relates how he located the island because it is mentioned in a memorial to John Talbot on the wall of the New Bedford chapel in Nantucket – as observed by Ishmael in Melville’s Moby Dick. Unable to locate the island on a map, Griffin invents one, claiming ‘although Melville says it is in Patagonia, it could just as well be the island of Tristan de Cunha, also known as Desolation, facing the coast of Patagonia. Mine, the one I later located at the western end of the Straits of Magellan, perhaps appeared by mistake, when I hadn’t intended’. Griffin travels to visit the island and to search for a Sixteenth Century robot, one of only two ever built by Melvicius of Prague, an engineer ‘whom Philip II secretly asked to forge a whole army of male automata to fortify the Straits of Magellan.’ Griffin hears of the automaton by chance when he discovers a photograph of his grandparents standing next to the machine on a visit to the Salesian museum in Punta Arenas, Chile in 1923. It is here that they meet the museum’s curator, Graciela Pavic, whose husband and two sons were drowned near Desolation Island and who devotes her life to the restoration of the automaton after discovering it while searching for the bodies of her family.

Griffin joins a container ship, the Minerva Janela, in Madeira, having contracted with its Captain – Branco – to accompany the vessel to Puntas Arenas. Griffin misses the boat’s departure from Lisbon and is forced to fly to Funchal, Madeira where he happens to meet the narrator at the Carlton hotel. Leaving Madeira, the boat travels to the port of Mindelo in the Cape Verde islands. Following an argument between the captain and crew over a miscalculation of the route, the boat travels to Rio de Janeiro then on to the Straits of Magellan, arriving at Puntas Arenas on 3rd December, a journey of just under two months.

Ortega offers no description of the narrator in the book, apart from that he ‘happened to be in Madeira on New Year’s Day morning in the new millennium.’ Griffin on the other hand is an enigmatic and intriguing character and is explored in detail throughout the novel. His narrative is characterised by unconventional sentences and a restless fluctuation from one thought to the next. He clearly serves one purpose in the novel – to tell his stories. The narrator observes as much at the end of the book when he describes his fruitless attempts to find Griffin amongst the streets of Madeira: ‘He seemed to have evaporated. He didn’t return to his usual haunts where I sat and reflected on the stories he’d told me. I saw inexorably that the story had come to a conclusion, that Griffin the narrator had told all. He’d become invisible…’

During a reflection on the theme of invisibility, earlier in the novel, Griffin notes that he shares his surname with the protagonist of HG Well’s novel, The Invisible Man, confessing: ‘I have often felt off radar like that, unseen, not even sensed, and yet I was there, for heaven’s sake, in flesh and blood, wanting something to happen, for someone to shake my hand or give me a hug or merely say, ‘Hello, it’s you, how are you, what do you want, what would you like?’ And I’ve also seen the tremendous shock on people’s faces when they suddenly and unexpectedly discover I was standing behind them, quite unintentionally, as a result of the silent, feline way I move…that is the invisibility that has always haunted me.’ In this way, it seems that Griffin is analogous to the historical characters, events and geographical locations described in the novel. Like Melvicius, Graciela Pavic and her drowned family, the automaton and Desolation Island itself, Griffin appears, tells a story and then vanishes. At the end of the novel, Griffin exists only in the narrator’s memory, just as the stories he told existed only in his. This transitory element to the book is captured in the closing lines, as the narrator states: ‘Can Griffin really have become invisible? Will I become invisible too? Haven’t we both always been invisible?’

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