[Two Lines Press; 2020]
Tr. from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
About a third of the way through Elvira Navarro’s Rabbit Island, published by Two Lines Press in 2020, the reader encounters a story six pages in length, the shortest in the collection, titled “Paris Périphérie.” The story’s unnamed first-person narrator, who has an aversion to maps, searches a Parisian banlieue (suburb) for its Social and Administrative Center, where she intends to renew a grant allowing her to remain in the city for another six months. As the deadline looms, the Center proves elusive. She spends the bulk of the story wandering like a sleepwalker through a labyrinth of concrete embankments, “interminable” avenues, used car lots, and junkyards – a cityscape reminiscent of those found in J.G. Ballard novels, environments of total artifice that reconfigure the psyches of their inhabitants. Aside from desperation, the narrator feels a “vaguely pleasurable sense of unease” that escalates to a “jolt that seesaws between fascination and dread.” Any intention to finally consult a map evaporates when, between attempts to find the Center, she reads in an article by Marguerite Duras that “there are no maps of the periphery.” It’s as if the periphery, in this story, were peripheral even to itself; as if the “I” were the only “center” left, disgorging its anxious narration like a spigot someone forgot to close. To match the “cold, modern skyscrapers” that tower over her, the narrator begins to feel a “frightening coldness, liberating coldness” towards Michel, her Parisian boyfriend. It may be that her failure to locate the Center stems from an unexpressed, half-conscious desire to leave a relationship which arouses in her an ambivalence bordering on repulsion – counterbalanced by the attraction she begins to feel towards these suburbs which hold a mirror up to her alienation. Similarly, “Paris Périphérie” holds up a mirror to the themes and structures of Rabbit Island as a whole.
Regarding setting or location, Navarro is drawn to peripheral zones in one sense or another. The title story trades banlieues for polluted spits of land along the Guadalquivir, where it draws the boundaries of an unnamed city. In “Myotragus” and “Gums,” the islands of Lanzarote and Majorca, respectively, serve as backdrops. In “The Top for Room,” it’s the cheap hotel near a conference center where provincial Spaniards gather for business fairs. In “Regression,” a park that separates a wealthy neighborhood from a dilapidated one in a city emptied for the summer. These suburbs cut-off from the center, islands separated from the mainland, and provinces neglected by “progress,” where global monoculture has not yet established itself (or where it has already begun to lose grip) have an instability about them – a porousness that Navarro mines for her stories of transformation. All of which are vulnerable to irrational encroachments, ready to serve as incubators for madness, surreal torque, and horror. In a word, they threaten to become centers of their own.
The title story “Rabbit Island” explicitly carries out this threat, when a man whose hobby is reinventing other’s inventions discovers a small island on the Guadalquivir and decides to inhabit it. He is disturbed, however, by the relentless squawking of the birds that roost on the island. He introduces a colony of rabbits, hoping they will outcompete the birds for resources. The rabbits strip the island of all vegetation before turning to the birds’ eggs, which give them the insatiable taste for flesh. Before long, they begin feeding on each other. This hideous outcome makes a mockery of the “non-inventor’s” naïve assumption that he commands his environment. If this parody of a Renaissance Man has reinvented anything, it is Enlightenment hubris and the monstrosity of colonization. Even this small island comprises a system beyond the protagonist’s understanding. A zone that affords him a sense of ownership and agency, it displaces the city as the center of his world, but turns out to be a reflection of the city: his ownership is illusory, his actions lead to repercussions as dire as they are unpredictable. Navarro hints at a certain irony in the term Anthropocene within this story: in an epoch characterized by the profound impact of human activity on the world around us, we feel powerless to reverse the consequences of our own power. “Rabbit Island,” as the title story, hints toward the construction of Rabbit Island – how the stories which comprise it may be read as islands of language, each with its own boundaries and modes of adaptation. As opposed to the typical novel, a short story collection has no obvious center, making it the form of choice for Navarro’s foray into themes of madness and dislocation.
Navarro’s plots follow the same meandering impulse as the narrator’s involuntary dérive in “Paris Périphérie.” She has a way of circling this or that rent in the fabric of reality, probing like a tongue at a canker sore with a mixture of disgust and fascination. Without explaining these ruptures, which would only serve to nullify their power, Navarro nonetheless makes them seem inevitable. Likewise, the way her scenes fit together feels at once unavoidable and chaotic. The laws of cause-and-effect remain operative, but effects are either widely separated from their causes, or the causes are stubbornly hidden, if not left out altogether. Instead of resolving, Navarro’s endings trail off like dreams or sentences spoken by someone preoccupied by an inner world, one that has finally taken precedence over the outer.
The plot of the story “Regression” is a revealing case in point, in part because Navarro constructs it from the raw material of the protagonist’s memories – by nature disjointed and unreliable. Told in close third person, it follows a strained friendship between two teenage girls. The unnamed protagonist and her friend Tamara grow up playing in a park that separates Espriu, their middle-class neighborhood, from the impoverished El Canal. Tamara claims that the park contains “weird animals from the center of the earth that had the ability to stay alive even when their body parts were separated.” One day, they sneak into Tamara’s grandmother’s house in El Canal. The old woman levitates grotesquely in the corner of the kitchen; according to Tamara, she is full of “a gas that comes from the center of the earth.” The incident is seared into the protagonist’s memory, and yet she cannot remember, let alone explain, why Tamara avoids her the following day, and for many years after. One summer at the cusp of adulthood, they bump into each other and continue as if nothing had come between them, setting off to explore the squats of El Canal. One of these buildings matches the protagonist’s memory of the grandmother’s house, but Tamara claims that her grandmother lived in another neighborhood altogether. She remembers inviting the protagonist over for lunch, mundane if somewhat awkward. Her memory seems to overwrite that of the protagonist as the story wanders outward from what, in a more conventional narrative, would be its central enigma: Tamara’s levitating grandmother. In place of an explanation, or even some climax in the characters’ relationship, Navarro substitutes ominous descriptions of the park and the neighborhood, as if the instability of the protagonist’s memories were exteriorized in El Canal’s dilapidation. The story ends in a typical deflation: “They went to different universities. Her friend chose psychology, while she studied humanities. For a while they telephoned and arranged to meet occasionally on a Sunday, until Tamara moved to another neighborhood and they lost track of one another.” This matter-of-fact anticlimax downplays the thematic resonance of their drifting apart to occupy separate spatial and disciplinary centers.
The process of “going mad,” either witnessed or experienced first-hand by all of Navarro’s characters, follows this same trajectory, as exemplified by the story “Top Floor Room.” It’s worth noting here that, once again, Navarro withholds the protagonist’s name – pointing to an indeterminacy shared by all of Navarro’s protagonists that facilitates the shifts and transformations they undergo. In this case, the protagonist comes to realize that she is dreaming the dreams of other people in the hotel where she lives and works. In piecing together her backstory, the reader may surmise that this stems from her concerted attempt to remain average by avoiding “any form of distinction,” even in her own dreams. Or, it may be a byproduct of a life in the service industry, spent satisfying others’ desires and deferring her own, until this abnegation extends even into sleep. She begins to take long walks during the cierzo – a cold, dry (melancholic) wind that plagues the (unnamed) city – and her walks turn into fugues: “the avenues were like her head when she was asleep, when her mental processes were besieged by invading beings. She couldn’t say which streets she’d chosen to walk down and which had chosen her.” To escape her dreams in the hotel, she experiments with sleeping on the street, where cityscape and headspace meld together: “the gigantic concrete circle of the esplanade surrounded by apartment buildings reminded her of her room at the hotel: it was a state of exception, a territory that was tearing itself off from any rational space.” Here she dreams for the whole city. The hyper-individuation of madness is at the same time an evacuation of the individual – the rational self which Realist fiction has placed at its center and for centuries endeavored to shore up in the service of capitalism, becomes, in Navarro’s hands, no center at all. Its boundaries are shifting and permeable: it is quite literally a fiction, “besieged” by rival fictions.
Though in conversation with both, Rabbit Island is more aligned with Poe than Gogol. Taking little delight in the absurd, Navarro plunges into the despair, horror, and alienation of a society in steady retreat before the very irrational forces it aims to suppress. Underneath every restless surface, something dark continuously seethes, threatening to overturn the world as we know it, along with the illusory individual which was supposed to serve as its foundation. Even so, the “vaguely pleasurable sense of unease” that Navarro, like Poe, extracts from the bottom of this horror, hints at its other face. Her characters, in the midst of their derangement, seem to contain the shards of a world re-imbued with meaning – if it could somehow be pieced together. For Navarro, nightmare and wish-fulfilment each contain the seeds of one another. She taps into a fascination of madness, and a temptation toward it, unmasking a latent desire for transformation – for the new centralities of meaning we might stumble across or inaugurate on the far side of disillusionment.
William Repass lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Word For / Word, Denver Quarterly, Hotel Amerika, Threadcount, and elsewhere. His critical writing can be found at Colorado Review, and Slant.