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The Island of the Dead by Lya Luft



Only the shadows
know
the secrets
of closed houses,
only the forbidden wind
and the moon that shines
on the roof
~ Pablo Neruda


Camilo, who has just committed suicide within the last twenty-four hours prior to The Island of the Dead's abrupt but artful opening — and it was a strange suicide involving an unbroken mare at that — lies exposed in the living room of his grandmother's home for his wake when we meet him:
"He had the face of an adolescent, delicate, almost the face of a woman.  But dusted lightly with gold, its youth lost and replaced by that solemn mask of wax, ice, and new knowledge . . . In the casket between his parents, in the light, Camilo's face showed surprise, astonishment, as it had since the moment of death. He hid behind this mask in order to die better, undisturbed, and to learn the gesture, the face, the voice, the role he was to play in his new existence. 
The wake was his opening night."
In life, Camilo was the fraternal twin of Carolina, son and daughter of their respective, separated parents, Renata and Martin, and the grandchildren of the family's matriarch known only as "Mother". Camilo and Carolina shared a secret obsession that consumed them (and it directly led to Camilo's death): They longed to be identical twins, sister and brother, boy and girl.  "They practiced being identical with the same tenacity with which she" [their mother] "had prepared herself for her piano in days gone by.  And they acquired, one from the other, the same posture, the same manner of turning their heads, of holding a book, of walking."

The twins' father, Martin, wanted nothing of what he deemed his children's despicable identical desires.  He resorted to even physically separating them, with force, so that one would live on his farm and the other in Mother's house.  He particularly loathed how effeminate his son Camilo was becoming, looking more, sounding more, what little he spoke, and even dressing more and more like his silly sister — the disgrace! Martin tried "curing" Camilo, "manning him up," if you will, with hard and filthy farm labor. After all, he reasoned, "A boy who is always with his sister will turn into a queer." Little could we know when Martin reasoned so about his son, of his own secret hypocrisy in the delicate matter, considering how close — certainly much too close for Mother's comfort (Love had been forbidden, because for Mother, for relatives and friends, the two were siblings")  — he once, well, more than once, actually; many more times than merely "once" if Mother and Martin's remembrance is right, had been with his full-figured stepsister as a teen. "A girl with black hair and sensual mouth, a beautiful mouth.  A beautiful woman full of the juices of life. . ."

With so much distasteful family history to conceal, it's easy to see why Mother ran her nuclear household the way she did, closed to all except family.  The title of Lya Luft's novella is translated literally as "The Closed Room" (O Cuarto Fechado).  So many enclosures within enclosures. Closed house. Closed room. Closed lives. The effect is suffocating, claustrophobic. If ever a book could make its readers struggle to breathe just by its sheer reading (and this is not a criticism or complaint, far from it!) The Island of the Dead is it.  Not only is the un-oxygenated air as stale as it is emotionally stultifying to those who live there, there's that inexplicable, overripe, fetid odor wafting out of the closed room whenever Mother exits or enters.  What is the source of this  secret reek, this shadow rot. Why does Mother insist that the door to the closed room remain always locked?  What are the noises (or are they voices), "Ela, ela," sometimes whispered up there?  Why has Mother devoted herself to the room religiously, every day, devout as a nun, for thirty years? Ela, I should add, is understood best in the context of the original Portuguese, which the translators took pains to acknowledge in their preface, describing how the double implications of ela's meaning would have been obvious to Luft's Brazilian readers, but lost in translation.  Ela in Portuguese became "Ella" in English.  To say anymore might spoil the future reader's own discovery. . . .

I do not know if Lya Luft was cognizant of, if not as outright inspired by, Pablo Neruda's excerpted poem above when she crafted her own "closed house" The Island of the Dead in 1984, as we obviously know she was by Arnold Böcklin's painting of the same name; the sepulchral painting that Renata has hung on the living room wall, not far from Camilo in his coffin, in her mesmerizing novella.  A novella haunted more by the living than the dead.  Interesting, too, how a real painting from real life (Arnold Böcklin was, after all, a real person) is transfigured inside fiction into impermanence through another work of art.  This evocative painting of Böcklin's (Isle of the Dead, 1880), is also pictured on the striking black-and-white cover of the University of Georgia Press' 1986 edition of the novella that I read, translated by Carmen Chaves McClendon and Betty Jean Craige.  So inspired was Sergei Rachmaninov by this black-and-white version of Böcklin's painting that, in 1909, he paid it the highest homage and wrote his own symphonic poem to it, The Isle of the Dead.

Pablo Neruda's famous aphorism quoted at the outset reads like a perfect abstract of Lya Luft's novella.  The eerie similarity of themes and imagery, in fact, and of the understated moods and atmospherics between the two, are uncanny.  Böcklin's painting, moreover, hung innocently enough on the wall of the so-called living room of Mother's house, elicited in Renata her own abiding obsession, prompted by Camilo's death, and oddly energized by the ensuing listlessness of her loss, devastation, and grief.  Renata is a shattered person.  She broods.  She ruminates.  Why did she abandon her early passion for the piano, her fledgling career as a gifted concert pianist, to marry a man she never loved? "I betrayed myself when I abandoned music to be unhappy in love." What can Renata envision, I wonder, regarding her son (assuming she envisions anything anymore), when she daily meditates upon Böcklin's desolate phantasmal painting?  Is that herself there in the boat she sees, standing at the prow, delivering her son unto death as she likewise once did, into life, a lifetime ago?

Even shadows intently scrutinized by mourning mothers reveal no answers.  Nor the moon.
"If he could speak the dead boy would say: 'At the bottom of the well I found united Life and Death, masculine and feminine, the I and the Other, devouring each other like the serpent that swallows his own tail.  From darkness and insanity Death leaped out, opening her arms wide — prostitute, damsel, promise, damnation.  Drunk with mystery, she called me, and I had to know: Whose bosom awaits me?  What silence?  What new language?'"

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin, 1880



Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air. 
~ Pablo Neruda


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