Archipel, by Inger-Marie Mahlke, Rowohlt Verlag, 432 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-3498042240
Archipel (which means, of course, archipelago), winner of the Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Award) 2018, simultaneously subverts and exploits fictional conventions. The story ‑ though it is not exactly a story in the usual sense ‑ is told in reverse chronological order, starting with a section set in 2015, which is followed by chapters set at various points in the twenty-first and twentieth centuries, closing in 1919.
The opening scenes of the novel introduce us to a rather unhappy family, consisting of Felipe, a dissipated failed academic historian; his wife Ana, a politician who is implicated in a financial scandal; their daughter Rosa, who does “etwas mit Kunst” (something with art); and Ana’s father Julio, who lives in a nursing home, where he acts as doorkeeper. Julio is ninety-five when we first encounter him, and by the end of the novel, in 1919, he has just been born. Julio is the only one of the family we meet early in the book who “survives” to the end. The others gradually disappear as the novel progresses (or regresses), since they do not yet exist as time winds backwards, and are replaced, mostly by their own forebears, until, at the end, the novel is populated by characters whose stories stretch back into the nineteenth century. It sounds more confusing than it really is, although it does take some concentration to remember that events one has already read about haven’t happened yet as one reads on.
The narrative structure of this novel, which inverts fiction’s usual propulsion from a “then” towards a point of closure that seems to be the inevitable consequence of the cumulative events of the story, resembles reminiscence, which starts with a “now” and looks backwards. Reminiscence is a daily human experience whereas novels are obviously artificially contrived, so one might expect that a novel that adheres more closely to the way in which we process natural stories ‑ the stories of our own and our families’ lives ‑ would seem quite normal, but it doesn’t work that way. In fact, this novel’s inverted chronology draws repeated attention to the centrality of its true theme, in the service of which Mahlke deploys her characters: the recent history of the island of Tenerife, where the author has family connections and where she clearly feels quite at home.
Coincidentally, it is not long since I read, for the first time, The Long View, by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956), which employs a similar reverse narrative technique. That novel begins with the breakup of a marriage and ends with the proposal, decades earlier. The reverse chronology has a kind of forensic function, as the novel sets out from the end point of the marriage and teases out how it got to that point, tracing the process of its disintegration while overturning the usual sequence of cause and effect.
Something similar is going on in Archipel, up to a point. The unsatisfactory marriage of Felipe and Ana is followed backwards to the unplanned pregnancy that more or less precipitated it, but that is not the point of this novel. Mahlke’s project is more wide-ranging and her focus thus more diffuse than Howard’s. Julio’s family is only one among several whose interwoven lives form the action of the novel, and although we do meet him at various points, between the end (presumably fairly imminent at the beginning of the novel) and the beginning (announced in the closing pages) of his life, Julio is in no sense the “main character”. But then, in a shifting cast of characters, there is none that really is “main”, because the business of this novel is not, ultimately, with its characters but its setting.
Beginning in our own decade, Mahlke sets up her depiction of everyday life on an island the rest of the world thinks of mainly as a holiday destination. Tenerife’s political and economic history is always the subject here, if never the ostensible narrative concern. Through the personal and apparently insignificant but intensely and intimately realised details of the lives of her characters, whom the narrator generally keeps at a kind of sardonic arm’s length, the author gradually reveals the public history (conquest, agriculture, development, colonisation, dictatorship, revolution, art, trade, politics, war, religion) of a contested place belonging politically to Europe and geographically to Africa and with a diverse population. So, for example, Felipe at one point recalls a boyhood escapade on a forbidden hillside, when with his brother he captured cochineal beetles from the cactus that is their habitat, afterwards crushing them to release the red dye. On one level, this is an idle childhood memory, but it is also an allusion to the former role of the cochineal trade in the life of the island, one of a succession of products that sustained its economy through the decades (others being flowers, bananas, tobacco, tomatoes and, today, tourist facilities — all exploited by various entrepreneurial figures, often foreigners, including, surprisingly to me at least, the Irish).
Mahlke’s descriptions of the landscape, weather and natural features of Tenerife are at the same time stylised ‑ at times depicting the island’s topography and built environment in terms of geometric shapes, for example ‑ and, strangely, convincingly naturalistic. She makes the place seem luminous, reminiscent of Hockney’s Californian paintings; but this is no tourist brochure, for she also depicts poverty, dereliction, corruption, crime and overdevelopment. The opening section of the novel, set in our own time, is called “San Borondón”, after a planned artificial island ‑ though maybe it’s really only a ship, nobody seems to quite know ‑ presumably intended to serve the tourist market, but this has to be also an allusion to the local legend of a ghostly island similar to the legendary Irish island of Hy Brasil. San Borondón, by the way, is a version of our own St Brendan, and the name seems to be attributed to this disappearing island in honour of a Canarian version of our story of Brendan’s strange island landing. In any case, San Borondón, whether legendary or commercial, is a chimera. (No reference to actual hotels or resorts called by this name in the Canaries is intended here.)
Mahlke draws the generations of characters together and pins them to their environment through the use of repeated words and motifs. The colour light blue, for example, used in the opening lines of the novel to describe the sky, recurs so frequently in descriptions not only of sea and sky but also of things like cardigans, blankets and interiors that it cannot be a coincidence. It is as if the natural colours of the island have permeated the lives of its inhabitants. Similarly, the word “Hügel”, meaning hill, is used more frequently to describe things that are not in fact hills (figures of people, heaps of sugar, for example) than it is used of actual hills. What we might think of as horizontal connections, those between characters and place, are complemented by vertical connections through history as tiny details of behaviour ‑ scraping undissolved sugar from the bottom of a coffee cup, for example ‑ recur from character to character over time.
Mahlke indeed uses repetition and recurrence in all sorts of ways in this novel, and particularly to comic effect. This is not what one might call a funny book, but it is certainly a witty one. The tone is generally arch and occasionally sharp. Small details of behaviour that are unremarkable when described once take on an absurdist, Pinteresque hue when mentioned for the third or fourth time, and the reader finds herself in amused sympathy with the narrator’s unstated exasperation with the characters.
The opening lines of the novel, which give exaggeratedly precise information about the time and temperature, such as might be appropriate in a detective novel, for example, would seem to have a comic intent and alert the reader (or perhaps only a reader of a particular turn of mind) to the narrator’s mildly ironic attitude to at least some of the characters and most of their doings. A humorous posture is not maintained throughout, but the opening scene of the final chapter, complete with ducks and their shit, is almost straight comedy.
For all its restrained humour, this novel is far from light-hearted. It has its share of despair, loss, oppression, war, and even the Canarian equivalent of our own Magdalen laundries ‑ except that the unfortunate young women in this story were set to work in fruit-picking and packing rather than clothes-washing.
To my particular taste, the first half of the novel, set in recent times and focused on the lives of the characters already mentioned, along with that of their nanny/housekeeper, is more absorbing than the part that turns its attention more sharply on historical events. The scenes set in our own century are imagined with great intensity and in a prose style that reminds me at times of Deborah Levy’s (if it is legitimate to compare styles across languages). The author’s forensic account of the most mundane actions — making a cup of coffee for example — give a lurid kind of close-up to the characters concerned and draw the reader right into the narrator’s confidence, so to speak. Scenes in the latter half of the book, although historically informative and executed with equal aplomb are not quite so emotionally convincing. This is probably intentional, though I haven’t managed to work out exactly why the author has made that choice. Possibly it is to do with the nature of reminiscence: it is hardly news that the characters who people all our pasts feel less immediate than ourselves and our contemporaries.
This is Inger-Maria Mahlke’s fourth novel and she is still in her early forties. She has garnered many literary awards and is undoubtedly a terrific writer, very assured in her command of her art and with an unerring vision of what she is about as a novelist. The video of her short speech on the occasion of the announcement of her recent major award for this book endeared me to her for ever ‑ she thanked her publisher for understanding that books are essentially different from yoghurt. I very much hope a non-yoghurt-selling English-language publisher discovers this author soon and makes her work available to a wider audience.
Siobhán Parkinson is a publisher, translator and novelist. Her next book, Gráinne – Gaiscíoch Gael, will appear from Cois Life later this year. Her recent children’s novel Miraculous Miranda has been published also in Portuguese and Japanese. This essay has been published with the assistance of the Goethe-Institut Dublin.