This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Body transformation
- Mental health issues
Rabbit Island is Elvira Navarro’s first collection of short stories to be translated into English; the original Spanish edition, published as La isla de los conejos, has been translated by Christina MacSweeney, who also translated Navarro’s 2014 novel, A Working Woman (La trabajadora). In eleven relatively short stories—the book is only 164 pages long—Rabbit Island draws on the fantastic to offer a bleak look at contemporary Spain; its arrival in English translation comes at a point where it is unexpectedly pertinent.
Navarro’s characters live in a contemporary Spain where funds are tight, jobs are dehumanizing, and the infrastructure is crumbling; even the food is bad. They are generally young, apathetic, and underemployed—the protagonist of the title story, “Rabbit Island,” is a self-described non-inventor, “inventing things that had already been invented” (p. 29)—and exist in a miasma of ennui. They have complex emotional lives, but are rarely demonstrative or even argumentative; these stories, by and large, spend most of their time in their characters’ heads. They are, in short, isolated and languishing—unmotivated, unable to focus—a state of mind all too familiar here in the second year of the pandemic. Despite predating it by a year (the Spanish edition came out in 2019, the stories presumably some time before that), Rabbit Island is at real risk of having inadvertently captured its zeitgeist.
What’s unexpected here is that Navarro punctuates her characters’ dismal existence with elements of the fantastic. We’re used to the fantastic being used as an escape from the mundane world. You could even argue that a foundational premise of modern fantasy is that the fantastic is in some fashion separate from the real world—that it exists elsewhere, whether tucked into the margins of reality, visited through a doorway, or on a separate plane altogether, waiting for the protagonist to discover, escape to, and occasionally return home from—and that it is emphatically different. As Ursula K. Le Guin once put it, “what is wanted in fantasy is a distancing from the ordinary.” But Navarro disregards that distancing, freely mixing the mundane and the supernatural: the fantastic is not in opposition to the ordinary; it’s an extension of the ordinary. What does that entail when the ordinary is, in these stories, tedious and soul-destroying?
My first instinct is to treat these stories as a species of horror or gothic, though, full disclosure, I don’t have nearly enough background in either horror or gothic to make that kind of taxonomic judgment. (When reviewing, one is not always prepared for what one finds.) But if, as has been said, horror is an affect more than a genre, it’s hard to imagine horror with as flat an affect as is found in these pages. We nevertheless encounter in these stories a tension between the banal and the horrific, and discover an affinity for the grotesque.
This is immediately apparent in the collection’s opening story, the mainstream “Gerardo’s Letters,” a story of a collapsing relationship, between Natalia and her titular boyfriend, that fairly revels in its filthy environment. It’s a sensorium of disgust and discomfiting imagery, in which the setting matches Natalia’s headspace: “the way he lies on the bed with his buttocks and thighs on a grubby checked blanket covered in hairs is a condemnation of me, and I’m breathing, chewing, and smelling blanket full of hair and grime” (p. 5). In the title story, “Rabbit Island,” the aforementioned non-inventor gets it into his head to occupy an island in the Guadalquivir River. He breeds rabbits in order to wipe out the resident birds, which results in a gruesome parade of horrific behaviour both towards and by animals. Revulsion recurs in “Strychnine,” in which the protagonist’s growth of a paw on her right ear parallels an overloaded sensory response to her surroundings: body horror laid atop a layer of grime.
But the taste for body horror is most clear in “Gums,” which presents the first stages of an unabashedly Kafkaesque, if not VanderMeerean, narrative of transformation. A couple is on vacation in the Canary Islands when one of them, Ismael, begins having gum troubles; a voracious appetite for limpets—a group of marine snails with a toothed, raspy tongue-like structure—is linked to a hideous growth in Ismael’s mouth that is reminiscent of a limpet’s tooth-embedded radula. The progress of Ismael’s growth is recounted in nauseating detail.
“But there’s something else I’ve got to tell you,” he added, barely giving me time to ask “what” before continuing: “I’m turning into an insect.” I cracked up and Ismael also laughed, but without ceasing to talk. “It’s not just flesh covering my tooth. Honestly.” He sat down near the bedside lamp and said, “Look.” I practically had to put the lamp into his mouth as his cheeks cast a shadow: it was true, what lay under the visor was not simply the miserable tooth, dotted with the particles of food Ismael was constantly trying to remove. There was also another sort of tissue, reminiscent of the tight-fitting shell of a beetle. I held my breath; the smell seemed especially bad that day, passing to my taste buds as if the sensation entered through my tongue rather than my nose. My retching had been conquered by the experience of the night before. (p. 149)
The affect is, again, flat; the revulsion and disgust are expressed in clinical and matter-of-fact terms. It’s significant that in these stories the instances of repellent imagery focus either on the self or on a romantic partner: body disfigurations are a metaphor for loathing, self or otherwise.
If “Gums” is unambiguously Kafkaesque, “Myotragus” is explicitly gothic. “Myotragus” offers two speculative variations on the modern persistence of Myotragus balearicus, a caprine “mouse-goat” that lived in the Balearic Islands until five thousand years ago; the second variation is a reimagining of the real-life Archduke Luis Salvator (1847–1915), a Tuscan prince who spent the majority of his life in Mallorca and became an advocate for conserving its wildlife. In Navarro’s hands he is transformed into the fictional Archduke Peter John; Luis Salvator’s elephantiasis, his habit of fathering children outside of marriage, and his interest in Mallorcan wildlife are transformed into perversion and obsession: for staging elaborate hunts of local young women on the one hand, and for sighting an ostensibly extinct mouse-goat on the other. (This is not the only time Navarro has taken fictional liberties with a real person: in 2016 she controversially published a fictionalized life of the recently deceased writer Adelaida García Morales; Luis Salvator has been dead somewhat longer, fortunately.)
Navarro’s protagonists have their own tenuous relationship with reality. One remembers encounters from her childhood, including a floating grandmother, that may or may not have happened (“Regression”); another stumbles around the suburbs of Paris trying to find an address that does not appear to exist, at least not for her (“Paris Périphérie”). It doesn’t occur to either protagonist that there’s another, mundane explanation: they’re simply being gaslit: “Regression” is also a story in which a childhood friend denies what the protagonist remembers, and in “Paris Périphérie” the protagonist’s boyfriend Michel insists that an address is there, despite the evidence of her own eyes. In “Notes on the Architecture of Hell,” the protagonist’s older brother has been institutionalized for mental illness, but may have been employed as a medium or otherwise involved in something Fortean; the opening lines imply that the protagonist (viewpoint characters mostly go unnamed in these stories) has followed in his brother’s footsteps.
When confronted with the uncanny or the inexplicable, Navarro’s characters do their best to apply reason to the problem—to find a mundane explanation for the miraculous, so that they can make it go away. In “The Top-Floor Room,” a hotel cook working in a dissatisfied haze reasons that her dreams have been those of other people, starting with her co-workers and hotel guests. Her response to the phenomenon is to science the shit out of it; but testing the hypothesis that the hotel room in which she slept during her four-week stints “held some magical power that enabled the dreamscapes to ascend the stairs to invade her head, and that as soon as she quit her job everything would return to normal” (p. 104) leads her into some unreal and hallucinatory territory. “Memorial” is about a truly distressing discovery: that a Facebook account in the protagonist’s long-dead mother’s name (spelled backward) is posting photos and other multimedia mementos from, it would appear, beyond the grave. The protagonist’s response, again, is to work out a rational explanation: that a particular photo, for example, could have been taken by a neighbour; other uploads defy rational explanation.
In “The Fortune-Teller,” the protagonist concludes that the unsettlingly accurate predictions sent to her via text message by an unknown tarot reader are “a manifestation of her own shadow” (p. 163). This is where the story says the quiet part out loud. It makes explicit what most of these stories are doing: deploying fantastic elements in a peculiarly solipsistic manner. In stories that closely observe the inner lives of their characters, it should come as no surprise that the fantastic elements do the same. Dreamscapes reflect dissatisfaction. Confusion, grief, and uncertainty evince uncertain memories and an uncertain reality. Self-loathing expresses itself in body horror. It’s all relentlessly internal. The fantastic is a monster in Rabbit Island, but most of the time the monster is in the mirror.