As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._
The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, translated from the German by Donald O. White and published by Overlook
This piece is by Berlin book person, Amanda DeMarco, who is the brains behind Readux, a literary website with “reviews, interviews, articles, and opinion on German and French books and events.”
“All of the people in this book are alive or were at one time,” begins Albert Thelen’s foreword to The Island of Second Sight. However, they “appear subject to greater or lesser degrees of personal disjuncture, similarly the sequence of events has undergone chronological rearrangements that can even involve the obliteration of all sense of time. In case of doubt, let truth be told.” This is a book, then, with a troubled relationship to reality and an untroubled one to truth. That is, one that claims the ultimate authority of the storyteller.
Just as in his own life, the author’s alter-ego Vigoleis arrives on the island of Mallorca in 1931 with his wife Beatrice, and the pair flee the increasingly inhospitable political climate in 1936. The degree to which the intervening five years hew to Thelen’s biography is debatable; as is the book’s position in the cannon. Lauded as one of the great works of twentieth century literature, The Island of Second Sight is not only under-appreciated abroad (it was first translated into English 57 years after its original publication), but also at home, where its status is rather that of a cult classic, absurd for a book of its stature.
Vigoleis and Beatrice travel to Mallorca because they believe that Beatrice’s brother Zwingli is dying there. Instead they find that he’s been incapacitated by the unstoppable sexual powers of Pilar, a particularly beautiful Spanish prostitute. Thus begins the Vigoleis’s long engagement with putas, whom he greets with the same shoulder-shrugging cheer as the rest of the turpitude and degeneration he encounters on the island, as well as in his own mind: “The philosopher Scheler had been right after all, when he responded to the Archbishop of Cologne, who had accused him of unvirtuous conduct, by asking His Eminence if he had ever seen a signpost that had ever gone in the direction it pointed to.”
Before Vigoleis, too, succumbs to Pilar, she mercifully kicks the couple out and they drift from one absurd lodging and low-paid occupation to the next, two bohemians at the mercy of fortune, never far removed from the moans and wails of the cathouse. A growing gaggle of locals, emigrés, and vacationers populate the story as Vigoleis and Beatrice settle into Mallorcan life. Therise of fascism paints a thickening black streak through the story, whose shadiness is otherwise derived from the more quotidian excesses of various human appetites and failings.
In other reviews, you’ll read about Thelen’s quick-witted Nazi-mocking, including one magisterial scene in which Vigoleis, working as a tour guide (called a “Führer” in German, literally a “leader”) deludes and delights a gaggle of German tourists by narrating their tour with lies that aggrandize the Teutonic tradition. The Island of Second Sight is also praised for its numerous literary allusions, as well as for the diverse intellectuals of the day that Vigoleis comes into contact with and lampoons.
None of these are the reason that The Island of Second Sight should win the Best Translated Book Award 2013. What does make it worthy of the prize is its sheer linguistic fecundity and the contribution it makes to the tradition of narrative. Vigoleis is one of the true great incarnations of the storyteller. He’s very nearly a shape-shifter, and he employs his art not only on rightist tourists, but also lonely heiresses, local functionaries, and first and foremost on the reader.
Vigoleis is so garrulous, clever, and original that you will willingly follow him down any cow-path he cares to tread. Which is every path that offers itself. At 736 pages, discursion is the novel’s mode, and it is hard to say what is plot and what is tangent. Multiple, extended scenes dedicated to the attempted and ultimately counterfeited nonconsensual consummation of the miscegenational union of a purebred Pekinese and a lapdog of impure lineage? Journeys back into childhood, into the Middle Ages? The story of the joke that cost Unamuno his life? Ever-deepening reflections on the failings of Catholicism? On the writings of Teixeira de Pascoaes, whose writings Thelen translated from the Portuguese in real life? On the philosophical significance of the donkey? Why not.
Perhaps even more interesting are the recursive discursions, that is, the ones that themselves reflect on the nature of narrative. Thelen refers to Vigoleis in the third person, except when he doesn’t, for example, when pulling back to comment on his own storytelling prowess, which hazily bleeds into Vigoleis’s as we reenter the stream of the plot. Rumor, translation, transcription, letter writing, note-taking, testifying, confessing, lying for personal gain, lying for sport—every manner in which a story can be transmuted and transmitted has its day in The Island of Second Sight.
The text is as rife with neologisms as archaisms, rhetorical devices as well as low puns, enriched by a sprinkling of words from the six languages Thelen spoke. The book is a lexicographical treasure that particularly delights in the description of all that is base. Beatrice’s debauched brother Zwingli is even the editor of a poly-lingual dictionary of obscenities, to which Vigoleis is naturally a helpful contributor.
That translator Donald White has managed to capture the book’s riotous linguistic profusion is a small miracle. Let me cite one of the innumerable jewels that dot the novel: Vigoleis describes a period of uncharacteristic domestic harmony: “Wherever one looked, it was a scene of peace and concord. It was as if the word puta had been struck from our dictionary.” A paragraph later, Don Darío, fellow lodger and exploiter of Vigoleis’s half-baked business ideas, disrupts this rare bliss. Why? “. . . it was only an American millionaire who had enraged my putative business partner.” Of course, if harmony is puta-free, then an angry man is putative.
This is a book whose form echoes the copiousness of the chaotic, shifting social order it depicts. Filthy, generous, good-natured, manipulative, The Island of Second Sight is an utterly, amply, completely human book, and that is why it deserves to win the BTBA.
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