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Book Review: Island of the Doomed by Stig Dagerman

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For Dante hell was a series of descending circles, for Sartre it was a room without exit, for Stig Dagerman it is a deserted island on which seven shipwrecked survivors find themselves stranded waiting for death. They have no food and no prospect of finding any. The last of their water has been dumped in the sand and the only other water on the island is in a poisonous lake where a strange fish attacks anything that comes near. They are surrounded by iguanas and carrion eating birds waiting for them to die. There are seven of them, but they are each isolated in their own private angst. They are on the Island of the Doomed.

Written in the summer of 1946 while Dagerman was staying, appropriately enough, at a writing cabin once belonging to the author of The Ghost Sonata and Miss Julie, August Strindberg, Island of the Doomed is a novel as dark and macabre as any of the work of the great playwright. It is a nightmare vision of the human condition best compared with the novels of a writer like Kafka. It comes as no surprise to the book’s readers that Dagerman, in spite of a hugely successful writing career, took his own life in 1954. This is not a book written by a man who finds much in this life to be cheerful about.

The book is divided into two sections. The first part consists of seven chapters taking the reader chronologically through a day beginning at dawn and running to night. Each is devoted to one of the individuals, five men and two women: a bank clerk, a boxer, an airman, a captain, a giant of a man, an English girl and an older woman. It describes their character and tells something about their lives. The second part deals with their last day (which may or may not be the same day) on the island as they wait for the inevitable end. Narrative is kept to a minimum; the author is much more concerned with the individuals and their inability to connect with each other in any meaningful way. Even in extremity, perhaps especially in extremity, they are unable to escape the existential loneliness that is man’s fate.

That there are seven castaways on the island has suggested to many readers that the book be read as allegory, but it is difficult to see the kind of direct symbolic relationships typical of the traditional allegorical genre. They may well be symbolic figures, but they are too complex to be easily pigeonholed. There may be seven deadly sins; there may be seven deadly sinners, but the sins and sinners on this island aren’t necessarily directly related. Besides, even a more expansive concept of symbolism may be too limiting for what is going on in the novel. “Symbol as symbol — there are no gradations in the world of symbols, everything is equally big or equally small,” one character observes at the end of the novel and he concludes, “that’s what’s so splendid about it.” In effect what’s so splendid is that symbols oversimplify. They don’t paint shades.

Island of the Doomed is not an easy book. Dagerman’s language, as translated by Laurie Thompson, is the heightened language of poetry. He speaks in images, metaphors and indirection. It is language that seems to run from idea to idea with raw abandon. It is said that the book was written very quickly, that the last 60 pages were written in one night. I can well believe it. It is a book that rushes with passion.

2008 Nobel Prize winner for literature J.M.G. LeClézio writes in a very short Foreword to this University of Minnesota Press edition that “here is undoubtedly one of the strangest novels of the twentieth century.” He then goes on to write what makes for an almost equally strange introduction to that strangest of novels. It is unfortunate that he didn’t take the opportunity to expand his ideas. An essay just short of four pages doesn’t do the book justice — neither does a review just short of 700 words for that matter.

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