4.13.2014

A Swift Survey of Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright




My copy of The Overlook Press edition, 2001.
Islandia is like a Victorian-era Hobbit, except the hobbits are humans, and live in a bucolic wonderland south of the equator instead of north, in lush pastures and woods and villages as delightful as any in the Shire.  The country of Islandia is so well conceived -- existing as it does on the continent of "Karain," a continent that's about the size of Australia but more like Africa in shape -- I'm convinced it indeed exists, somewhere….

The majestic mountains in the north of Islandia, reminiscent of Switzerland's or New Zealand's, and that have formed a natural border but not-so-impenetrable barrier between it and its vulgar, uncivilized, cut-throat neighbors of the Sobo Steppes, are mandatory travel destinations for the most intrepid mountaineer's itinerary, thus making Islandia (as reported by Austin Tappan Wright, Esq.) as much of an in-depth documentary of this fascinating nation as it is a 1,024 page novel presently published by The Overlook Press.

At the novel's outset Islandia is on the cusp of opening its doors to foreign trade and diplomatic relations for the first time in her history, and it's this intrigue of industrialized Germany, England, and the United States attempting to outsmart one another (and agrarian Islandia) while vying for first rights to Islandia's unspoiled mineral deposits and other natural resources, that propel the narrative forward through the young idealistic eyes of recent Harvard grad and neophyte U.S. consul to Islandia, John Lang; or, "johnlang" -- one word -- as the natives would call him upon being introduced to him, since Islandians have no conception of last names.  No conception, either, of wristwatches or pocket watches; no conception of time as we know time for that matter -- at least not time as civilization in the West understands it.  Islandia is in fact timeless, I would wager, and maybe eternal.

Austin Tappan Wright was as accomplished with his intricate and eccentric world building as Mervyn Peake and Frank Herbert were with theirs in Gormenghast and Dune, respectively.  The main difference between them and Islandia, and between it and other classic achievements of imagination like Lord of the Rings, being Islandia was not straight fantasy or science fiction like they were; rather, Islandia's rich and fully realized fictive locales and culture occupied the here and now alongside the real world of the first decade of the 1900's in what was Austin Tappan Wright's day, and it's this duality of interwoven fantasy and reality that make Islandia for me an utterly unique reading experience.  It's also, because of its optimism completely devoid of today's empty and stultifying cynicism, the unexpected reading equivalent of good old-fashioned comfort food.  Like chicken fried steak w/country gravy and buttery mashed potatoes.  Or like the flaky crust of a piping hot roast turkey potpie.

Hard to fathom how such a novel as vast and extraordinary as Islandia, going on seventy-five years now, has continued receding into obscurity through literature's mainstream cracks and not left its cult status behind ages ago.




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