I’m a bit of a sucker when it comes to old-fashioned shipwreck stories. The Island of Last Truth (L’illa de l’última veritat, 2011; tr. from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin, 2012) hits the spot: it’s the story of a man who is the sole survivor of a pirate attack and who ends up being marooned on a small island for years, at first struggling to survive and then to remain sane. Knowing that premise, it might be striking to find out that this book takes place in the contemporary world of GPS travel, satellite phones, etc. But the world is a big place, and if we want a story that examines identity, veracity, and life and death, there is no better place to do this than on an island.
When The Island of Last Truth begins, we meet Phoebe Westore, the woman who will actually be taking us through this story, becoming another layer over the underlying text. In the prologue, she’s looking back to the first time she met Dr. Mathew Prendel. Phoebe had heard about the legend surrounding Prendel: some four years earlier he had returned to New York, unrecognizable after being lost at sea. Somehow, due to their reclusive natures, Prendel and Phoebe are attracted to each other and become lovers until, seven years later, Prendel dies. Until the end, Prendel didn’t talk about what happened during the years he was lost. No one really knew, and Phoebe wasn’t the type to attempt to bring it out of him. However, before he died, he told her it was a secret he could live with but that he could not die with. Would she please write down his story? Of course.
Phoebe is a scholar, used to delving into texts and remarking on their layers, so she is nicely suited to convey a story that has this kind of disclaimer:
When all is said and done, Phoebe, the only lies that matter are those that have the power to transform your life, don’t you think?
We move to Prendel’s story. He was relatively young, in his mid-30s, when he decided to go on sabbatical for a year with a couple of friends. They’d simply sail. One day during their journey from Jamestown to São Tomé they saw a ship on the horizon which turned out to be the Solimán, a pirate ship. Though this segment is brief, Company controls the pace nicely, allowing us to think while the ship approaches and these three friends wonder — without really believing it — whether they will die.
Sadly, two will. Prendel himself may be the cause. Acting quickly, he pulls out a pistol and shoots one of the pirates, who falls into the water. Then Prendel himself dives in just as the bullets start to fly and he sees his friends gunned down. Over the next who-knows-how-long, he floats and swims, drifts in and out of consciousness, wishes he’d died but unable to actually kill himself, until he finally washes up on a small island. Someone gets him water and tends to him while he recovers. He is surprised to find out that the man who is tending him is the very pirate he shot, a man named Nelson Souza. Souza has full control of the situation, being the one with a gun and several other supplies; Prendel has nothing. Why doesn’t Souza just kill him? Souza says, “You don’t kill a man who may be useful to you.”
Prendel doesn’t know how he might be useful to Souza, and Souza doesn’t say. Perhaps worse, Souza effectively locks Prendel onto one half of the island. His rules are that Prendel cannot come into his territory, nor can he attempt to flag any passing ships (his reasoning is that any passing ship will be like the Solimán, which Souza himself was trying to escape.
It’s a quick book, coming in at around 120 pages, and Company keeps us moving forward constantly, even when we are just floating around in the ocean. I was completely engaged and along for the ride. Where the book falls a bit flat, though, is when you close the cover and realize it could have been something more. Though familiar (Prendel himself gets the feeling that he’s mimicking a desert island story), the setting and the ideas explored in this novel are still fascinating, and Company has some unique perspectives. After closing that last page, though, I couldn’t help but think it could have sacrificed the quick pacing a bit to allow these ideas to develop a bit more. Still, a great read for people like me.