At heart an early 20th-century tale of adventure, Adolfo Garcia Ortega’s Desolation Island is a dense and meaty novel for lovers of magical realism, elaborate and ornate writing styles, and plots that seem inspired by The Invisible Man, Emilio Salgari, and the “penny dreadful” fiction of the Victorian era.
Oliver Griffin is a man of obsessions. Well-read and full of trivia, he recounts to our unnamed narrator his search for a mysterious robot in Chile and his lifelong passion for the mysterious Desolation Island. He doesn’t offer a straight story, however: darting around throughout history, Griffin’s tale includes Philip II of Spain’s 16th-century robot army, the 1933 film of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, a variety of love affairs and sexual liaisons, and a rambling cast of historical and wholly fictional characters including an alchemist, Charles Baudelaire, conquistadors, a Chinese transvestite, and a Hollywood film director.
This is the first time Ortega has been translated into English. Through Peter Bush’s translation, Ortega’s writing style and narrative arc are as much a character as the other individuals in the book. Sinuous, tangled, erudite, and flamboyant, the text takes the reader on a journey as unpredictable as Griffin’s, and those that enjoy linguistically wild narratives will enjoy this trip. Sense of place and era are evoked but the emphasis is more on the turn of events and the philosophical diverges that so enamor Griffin. Reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez and Italo Calvino, the story is peppered with tidbits that occasionally makes one yearn for annotations, but surrendering to Griffin and the prose results in a breathtaking trip.