Reading ISLAND OF THE DOOMED

Dagerman’s second novel was written right before his journey to Germany in the fall of ’46.  Its structure is bursting at the seams with over-heated, hallucinatory imagery, the unfettered flow of which is unique in his production.  (Dagerman’s reporting from Germany signaled a turn toward more naturalistic, and to many readers, more accessible writing.)

It is a difficult book to read, writes Olof Lagercrantz, Dagerman’s biographer (1). Not because the novel is obscure or hard to understand – its structure is clear. The difficulty to him is the ratched-up tone or intensity. But when the reader’s senses adjust  “… a whole landscape opens up, and one to which he will often long back.”

Simply, the structure is this: Five men and two women are shipwrecked on a deserted island with a hostile environment. There’s no food, no water, no chance of rescue. The reader gets to know this shard of stranded humanity as each character’s life-story is told through the hallucinatory distortions caused by their thirst, hunger, wounded bodies and souls.  The second part of the novel, explores each character’s chosen path on the island in the face of the inevitability of death.

Island of the Doomed is very much a symbolic novel depicting the fearful state of mankind in the wake of the horrors of war, genocide and the entry into the nuclear age. Lagercrantz describes how Dagerman seems to serve as a medium for the anxiety of the times: “The 300 pages seem written in a trance-like state, the pen rarely leaving the paper, one dreamlike image after the other, and when the contact with the spirit world finally breaks, you imagine how the medium prints ‘fini’ on the last page without really knowing what has transpired.” Indeed, Stig Dagerman (the atheist!) told a friend that the novel was the most curious he’s ever written because “I didn’t think when I wrote it but let God do the writing”.

But it’s not only the post-war times that are reflected through this 23-yearold novelist, it is of course also his own complex psychological make-up.  There aren’t really seven different characters on the island, Lagercrantz argues, but one. They all carry variations on guilt, fear and loneliness, themes close to Dagerman’s own:                                                  – Jimmie Baaz/the once successful boxer paralyzed by the expectations put upon him;        – Madame/the guilt-ridden mother of a catatonic child whom she can’t love;                        – The English girl/who has been raped and fears men and intimacy;                                         – Tim Solider/ the ship-hand who can’t escape his sense of servitude and inferiority;         Boy Larus/the soldier who subordinates his self to absurd obedience;                                 – Ca ptain Wilson/who withdraws into a cold heartless shell devoid of humanity; and     Lucas Egmont/the one with a bleeding, guilt-ridden heart who desperately tries to find meaning in the meaningless.

Lagercrantz sees in Lucas Egmont a reflection of Dagerman’s idealistic self, and Egmont is indeed the only one who manages to find some sense of hope and transcendence before succumbing to his death on the island. The second part of the book describes his philosophical journey as he argues against his nemesis the humanoid Captain Wilson.

Dagerman serves as a medium for the postwar times, and that includes channeling its philosophical currents.  When God is dead and life lacks purpose, how do we live? Moreover, how do we live as humans? The perennial ethical problem.

Similar to Camus’ Sisyphus who endlessly pushes a rock up a mountain only to see it roll down again, Dagerman’s Egmont is the absurd hero who transcends his fate by infusing a symbolic act with meaning. As the last person left on the island,  aware that nobody will ever see it, Egmont carves into the white rock his image of a lion – a symbol for the power of solidarity among men not the killing-machine that Captain Wilson wanted.

“And the awareness, simply awareness, the open eyes that fearlessly observe their terrifying situation have to be the guiding star of the self, our only compass that stake out the direction, because without that compass there will no direction.” (p. 283, transl. LD)

Island of the Doomed is a both a document of an anxiety-filled time and an autobiography. “The strictly personal and intimate melded together with the general and all-concerning. It all came together in this book and that is why, Lagercrantz says, the force of life runs so strongly through its pages.” 

 

(1) Olof Lagercrantz, Stig Dagerman, Norstedts, Stockholm 1985

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