Lya Luft - 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
Lya Luft, The Island of the Dead, Trans. by Carmen Chaves McClendon and Betty Jean Craige, University of Georgia Press, 1986.
A grieving family, father, mother, sisters, and grandmother, each try to understand why young Camilo killed himself
An 18-year-old boy, Camilo, is dead, his youthful body prepared and confined forever in a coffin that now sits in a living room, attended by his estranged parents on either side. Through the course of the inaugural night that marks his sudden, violent passing, his surviving family members will reveal painful memories, distressing experiences, buried emotions, and devastating secrets. Amidst the grieving, Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin‘s painting “The Isle of the Dead” (referred to in the novel as having been “painted many years ago by a friend of [Renata’s] father’s, a copy of an original that no one had seen”) both haunts and guides the narrative.
Camilo’s businessman father Martin and concert pianist mother Renata blame each other for their miserable lives. His twin sister Carolina lies upstairs drugged, but aware her symbiotic world is now shattered. His paternal aunt Clara awaits her ghost lover alone. His adopted grandmother whom everyone calls “Mother” busies herself caring for others. Mother’s daughter Ella – an enormous, mysterious mass of crippled humanity – looms in darkness.
A bestseller in its native Brazil, Island is novelist/poet/critic/translator Lya Luft’s first title available in English. The book’s original Portuguese title, O Quarto Fechado – literally, The Closed Room, surely a more apt description of the choking claustrophobia that stifles this house of mourning – is not the only detail lost in translation. The “Translators’ Preface” duly warns that “the two languages embody two distinct ways of constructing reality” and notes the difficulties in “mak[ing] the American reader aware of the strangeness of the original text and to bring across some of its ‘secret meanings.'” In that attempt to illuminate, the translators reveal far too much before even getting to the novel’s first page. One easy fix: read that preface only after the novel itself, and then you can see if your own secret-sleuthing was accurate.
Translation challenges aside, Luft clearly knows how to unsettle readers with disturbing glimpses of murder, rape, priestly abuse and other bewildering moments of evil. Then near book’s end, Luft unexpectedly, subtly pinpoints the single moment when all the action contained in the pages before could be, if not changed, then negated: “To forbid love was to forbid life … Was that it?”
When the morning finally comes, you’re faced with quite a readerly conundrum … about the story, about fiction, about writing: just how will you react? - smithsonianapa.org/bookdragon/the-island-of-the-dead-by-lya-luft-translated-by-carmen-chaves-mcclendon-and-betty-jean-craige/
Only the shadowsknow
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."
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?'"Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air.
~ Pablo Neruda- enriquefreequesreads.blogspot.hr/2016/07/the-island-of-dead-by-lya-fett-luft.html
Lya Fett Luft (born September 15, 1938) is a Brazilian writer and a prolific translator, working mostly in the English-Portuguese and the German-Portuguese language combinations