‘The Island at Noon’ by Julio Cortázar (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine)
Read it here in about 25 minutes.
Thinking about using time in narrative…
The protagonist in this story, Marini, is a flight steward who has become obsessed with a Greek island called Xiros, which he flies over on one of his regular routes. The aircraft always passes over the island at noon (as per the title of the story), and he always abandons his duties to look at it out of the window. He has built up the island in his imagination – it’s a perfect place, a ‘golden turtle’ surrounded by blue sea, and he thinks he can see fishing boats and nets, so he likes to imagine the lives of the people who inhabit it. He’s so obsessed he turns down a promotion to a better route. Marini’s thoughts of ‘filming the passage over the island, to repeat the image in the hotel’, have a pornographic quality; he wants to repeat the experience of seeing the island over and over, but is no longer satisfied simply watching it, and becomes desperate to visit it.
The ending of the story is wonderful – it’s shocking, and stunning, and can be interpreted in several ways. My own interpretation is based on the use of grammar, which jumped out at me, because of the way time operates within it. The narration throughout the story is third-person limited omniscient, from Marini’s point of view, and past tense is used. As Marini stares out of the window at the island one day, the narrator tells us Marini’s thoughts: ‘Mario Merolis would lend him the money he needed for the trip, and in less than three days he would be in Xiros. … he would enter the sea of the northern coves naked, … he would fish octopuses with the men’. Now, the word ‘would’ can be used to mean EITHER that the past tense narration is talking about something that is going to happen in the future, OR as an expression of hope or desire for what Marini wants to happen in the future. These grammatical possibilities create ambiguity.
Then, we have a dreamlike sequence, where time speeds up, and without beginning a new paragraph, and within one sentence, we jump from Marini looking at the island to being on the island: ‘Nothing was difficult once decided—a night train, the first boat, another old and dirty boat, the night on the bridge, close to the stars, the taste of anis and mutton, daybreak among the islands. He landed with the first lights’. Now, we can understand, given Marini’s obsession, why we don’t get a description of the journey to the island, and why we jump through time to arrive there – he’s dreamed about the island for a long time. We don’t need the description of the journey anyway, because we can imagine it based on all the ‘woulds’ – the borrowed money, the number of days that pass before he arrives there. But, we can also wonder, if ‘would’ is an expression of desire, does Marini ever really make it to the island?