If the title of this slim novel isn’t enough to catch your attention, open the cover and experience the ecstasy of these words: Translated from the Catalan. A phrase too-seldom seen, it’s enough to bring about the kind of thrill readers feel about the words “translated from the Basque” or the Icelandic, or even that book just a flutter in the depths of our consciousness: a multi-generational novel translated, say, from a Polynesian language.
“For a writer only one form of patriotism exists: his attitude toward language,” Joseph Brodsky wrote. In this way, a writer’s language becomes her country.
The Argentinian-born Flavia Company moved to Barcelona in 1973 as a child and has published more than a dozen works of fiction in both Spanish and Catalan. Read her 124-page The Island of Last Truth (2012, translated by Laura McGloughlin), and you’ll find yourself wondering—after only a few pages—why she isn’t a household name.
This is, on the surface, a twenty-first-century adventure story with pirates. It’s a love story, too, that at once examines and gives oxygen to Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic. For its precision and continual surprises, it deserves a place on a list of brief but unforgettable masterpieces.
The Island of Last Truth reads like a tale handed down through the generations and polished with each new offering and now given to us to read, riveted until we come to the end. Even there, Company manages to offer another of her many twists, the final one reminding us how the best books continue to come alive in fresh ways long after we place them on the shelves.
The novel begins at a cocktail party where discussion hawks the rumor that another guest—the mysterious Matthew Prendel, a surgeon and Columbia University professor—once lived on a deserted island as a kind of modern-day Crusoe. Intrigued by the enigmatic Prendel, one of those guests invites herself into his world.
“We were lovers for almost seven years,” writes Company in the voice of the novel’s first narrator, Phoebe Westore, a professor of comparative literature. “One of my aims was to endure longer than his shipwreck.”
In the ensuing chapters, Westore learns Prendel’s story, which he asks her not to reveal until after his death. We discover, in these sections, that when pirates approach Prendel and his shipmates, he shoots one, who falls into the sea. The others kill his two companions, and Prendel jumps overboard.
At sea, with no coffin to save him à la Ishmael, Prendel washes ashore on a small island—but he’s not alone. “Prendel sees that the man is wearing a bandage on his ankle,” writes Company. He has been shipwrecked with the pirate he shot.
He was convinced he’d killed a man and was on the verge of dying. Instead, neither the one nor the other. For that reason hope is the last thing one loses, he thinks; life has so much more imagination than human beings, is never, even in the face of the most conclusive proof, predictable or definitive.
In these early pages, the pirate Nelson Souza draws a line in the sand, threatening Prendel’s life if he crosses the boundary. Company’s premise over the next chapters, while simple, rejects simplicity. Rather, she continually introduces new layers.
The Island of Last Truth belongs alongside the best contemporary allegorical novels. J. M. Coetzee and José Saramago come to mind, also Defoe and Conrad, but Company’s distinct and engaging voice and intricate structure make this an inimitable reading experience—a novel about all we’re willing to do to survive and what stories we tell ourselves in order to live.