Island of the Doomed Reviewed

Frederic Lindsay, The Scotsman, April 18, 1992

ANGUISH PLAYED OUT IN A SURREAL LANDSCAPE

Born in 1923, by the time he was 26, the Swedish writer Stig Dagerman had published four novels, a short story collection, a brilliant book-length report of the condition of Germany in the broken years immediately following defeat, and four plays. in 1954, he killed himself. The extraordinary outburst of creativity between 1945 and 1949, the five fallow years, his suicide – the factual outline alone leaves a sense of mystery and waste.

Influenced, like other Swedish writings of the Forties, by Kafka, his first novel drew upon his experience as a conscript for an unease fable about the encounter between a young soldier and a girl who has killed her mother. His second, Island of the Doomed, appeared only a year later in 1946, and took up again as its theme the existential necessity of the refusal to evade anxiety and guilt.

Seven survivors of a shipwreck are trapped on an island somewhere in the Pacific. There is a beach, a lagoon, a climb through a jungle terrain to a plateau which ends in a cliff dropping sheer to rocks below. Of birds there is a kind of gull, which when it comes close is seen to be blind; there are iguanas; there is some murderous fish that lies in wait at the bottom of the lagoon. There is not a drop of fresh water. In other words, this is like no island that ever was on the face of the earth.

The effect should irritate, arousing that impatience we properly feel at this point in the century towards stage settings for symbolism. There is a moment when a pool turns to blood held under a trembling membrane. It is – dread word – surrealistic; and what could be more dated than that? Or take the cast list of survivors: the runaway bank clerk. the deserter, the stoker, the mother of a deformed child, the fanatical officer, the frigid girl – oh, yes, and the boxing champion in flight from his notoriety. They should be the very stuff of a Hollywood disaster movie.

The difference is that Dagerman is the eighth survivor and doomed; no island was ever more real as an arena of anguish. The difference is that the stereotype of the melancholy Swede is here, awesomely, in real torment. The difference is the poet’s gift of language, and the novelist’s of character creation. Put the two together in the section dealing with the mother with the iguana son and the comparison with Kafka is, for once, permissible. The difference, of course and as always, is that unbridgeable gap between the wishful average and the gifted.”

(bold type/LD)

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