The Islanders – Christopher Priest

It should by now be evident to anyone who reads this blog or indeed my reviews elsewhere that I am particularly attracted to fragmented narratives and unreliable narrators. A good portion of the pleasure I find in reading comes from holding the different pieces of narrative in my head, considering how they might fit together, and another chunk comes from trying to determine when I can trust the narrator (that is, beyond the background distrust that anyone should maintain when someone else is telling them a story, because narration is always partial, and often a matter of misdirection too).

In which case, I am not sure they come much more fragmented than The Islanderswhich is cast in the form of a gazetteer, what the writer of the ‘Introductory’ rather testily refers to as ‘a long list of names of islands’. Nor am I sure that a more reluctant introduction to a book has ever been written. Its author, Chaster Kammeston, an inhabitant of Piqay, the island he has lived on all his life and which he has never left, seems determined to undermine the enterprise by pointing out its futility. It can, he notes, only ever be partial, as a complete listing of islands would be too unwieldy to use (and this anyway presupposes that anyone can make a definitive statement about the number of islands in the Dream Archipelago), but in being incomplete it is also useless. And the act of selection is, contends Kammeston, political: ‘So here we have partiality added to triviality, and they have made a book of it all while maintaining the conceit that a gazetteer is apolitical’ (5).

But here’s the first mystery. Not only does Chaster Kammeston contribute the ‘Introductory’ to the gazetteer, he also features in it, in ways that call into question his ability to have contributed that introduction in the first place, let alone whether he might even have wished to contribute it to in the form that I, as reader, see it. I immediately ask myself whether there has been more than one edition of the gazetteer, although there is nothing to suggest there has been; perhaps Kammeston’s Introductory is left over from an earlier version of the gazetteer, or did he simply never see the final version. These questions remain unanswered. There is too the mystery of the book’s dedication. Is it part of a novel called The Islanders or part of a gazetteer? And what kind of name for a gazetteer, a work of reference, is The Islanders anyway?

This is another matter altogether. The volume possesses the superficial appearance of a gazetteer – names, alphabetical order of names, stories about places – but look more closely and the form of the gazetteer seems to be breaking down, or shifting, perhaps reflecting the shifting indeterminacy of the Dream Archipelago itself. Yes, there are descriptions of islands, their potential as tourist destinations, advice about what to see, how to behave, visa requirements, what currency is in play. But, as Kammeston notes in his Introductory, there are entries that tell stories about people and places, something he seems to regard as in some way inappropriate: ‘I found it surprising that in some cases the islands are described not by their physical characteristics, but by narratives concerning events that took place on them or people who did something while there’ (10). Yet he also finds it charming for ‘as a non-traveller I am always much more interested in the lives of hotel proprietors than I am in the rooms they have for rent’ (10).

Which brings us to the question of what the unnamed authors are doing. As Kammeston himself notes:

The book is arranged in alphabetical order and it is intended that it should be read in that order. However, as most people are supposedly expected to use it as a work of reference, or as a travel guide, then the order in which the articles have been placed is completely irrelevant. I do maintain, though, that few will be able to ‘use’ this book in the way it is presumably intended, so the alphabet is as good a basis as any from which to start. (9)

Are they trying to, so to speak, hide a story in plain view by concealing it in various entries? Is there some form of censorship in play that the reader cannot see which demands that controversial material – and much of this material does seem in its way to be controversial – not be disseminated in a traditional linear narrative but must instead be hidden away? The situation is further complicated by the fact that travel within the Dream Archipelago is difficult, for various reasons. The region is physically difficult to map but various other conditions make travel hard; there is a great reliance on ferries, little in the way of commercial airline travel. One might conceivably ask what is the point of a gazetteer at all.

So, let us go back to those concealed stories. One seems to concern Dryd Bathurst, artist and serial cuckolder, a man who habitually leaves town in a hurry to avoid the wrath of angry husbands, a man who is constantly on the move across the Dream Archipelago, a man who may even be a murderer; this is reflected in the way he appears in the entries for so many different islands. Are we to infer that his sexual conquests feed into his painting, and vice versa; certainly, he seems to incorporate them into his art. Are we to suppose as well that the laws passed on various islands proscribing the activities of erotomanes are aimed directly at Bathurst. The story is there, tantalisingly just beyond our reach.

Another concerns the mysterious death of a mime artist, Commis, hit by a falling sheet of glass as he performs on stage. Kerith Sington is charged with his murder and executed but many believe, Esla Caurer among them, that Sington was not guilty. But the question remains as to who did murder Commis, and why? Reading on it becomes clear who probably was responsible for Commis’ death but the motive is rather more complex than one might initially suppose. There is reason to suppose that the reader is being misdirected but in what way?

Esla Caurer is a constant presence; social theorist, author, educator, she is revered throughout the Archipelago and miracles are imputed to her even though, during her lifetime, she rejects this. What precisely it is that Caurer does is somehow left unexplained, only one mystery among the many that surround her, including when she actually dies, whether she has a double, and the nature of her relationship with Kammeston. Other stories seem complete in and of themselves, but one has the strangest feeling that someone is experimenting, trying out different story-telling styles – romance, weird fiction, to take two examples – while throwing greater light on the nature of the Archipelago.

Of interest too is the intricate political situation of the Archipelago. On the one hand, the islands are all party of a covenant of neutrality but throughout the narrative there are accounts of this being abused or overlooked. Most poignant is the way in which individual islands express their willingness or otherwise to take in deserters from the war being fought across the southern continent. Many entries note the havenic or shelterate status of particular islands and how deserters might expect to be treated. The war is never directly shown but it impinges on life in even the most out-of-the-way places

It is one thing to build or map a fictional world but another entirely to communicate the nature of that world to the reader. One of the things I particularly like about The Islanders is how it refuses the obvious in favour of this sustained series of oblique portraits of the Dream Archipelago. And there is so much going on, so many connections to be made between individual entries, so many deceptions, misdirections and so on. It was only late in the book, for example, that I suddenly realised that not only was the narrative moving back and forth across the Archipelago in ways I couldn’t chart, it was also moving back and forth in time. Which makes me certain now that there are other things I’ve overlooked. But that is the pleasure of this narrative. It is so rich in potential, in possible explanations of what is going on. Subsequent readings will only open up further possibilities.