The Island of Second Sight: From the Applied Recollections of Vigoleis
When protagonist/author Vigoleis’s brother-in-law sends a message from Mallorca that reads, “Am dying. Zwingli,” Vigoleis and his wife, Beatrice, set off to save him, hoping it’s not too late. They find Zwingli dying only in the sense of “little deaths” at the mercy of his sexy Spanish mistress. That miscommunication sets the tone. Vigoleis and Beatrice spend a destitute and often absurd five years on the island, from 1931 to 1936. Hitler comes to power in 1933 — an important plot point. Vigoleis communes with exiled German Jews, opium smugglers, Catholic anarchists, and the likes of Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius, which Vigoleis types up for the poet. Vigoleis abhors Nazis but must work as a tour guide for fussy German vacationers. In the end, Vigoleis discovers he’s on a death list. With both Nazis and fascist Francoists in pursuit, he and Beatrice escape.
First published in Germany in 1953, Thelen won prizes and praise from the critics for this book’s unique form, which mixes third-person fiction and first-person memoir, and for its intelligent and dark but witty take on human despair amidst natural beauty. This is the first English translation.
Meaty literary books demand effort, and that’s truer for The Island of Second Sight than anything I’ve read since college. The fact that Thomas Mann pronounced the book one of the greatest novels of the 20th century was a useful spur, especially in the first couple hundred pages. (I admit I felt flashes of gratitude for agent/gatekeepers more than once during those pages. Most would have insisted that Thelen write more succinctly!) Readers who invest the effort, however, are almost certain to be rewarded by this exhausting, hilarious, eccentric, and ultimately unforgettable masterpiece. Recommended for those readers.