Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol (translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan)
Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Billinger
Canongate, Edinburgh, 2006, 233pp, £9.99, t/p, ISBN 1-84195-688-0
"We are never very far from those we hate. For this very reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love. An appalling fact, I knew it well enough when I embarked. But some truths deserve our attention; others are best left alone."
This is the opening observation of Cold Skin's nameless narrator, a man who has chosen to be stranded on a tiny, equally nameless island on the edge of the Antarctic circle as the weather official. His narrative acknowledges that the job is both pointless and monotonous and, given the harsh conditions, not one that would be undertaken for money alone, but it never reveals the reasons behind his desire to isolate himself from human contact for a year. He writes of bargaining with the past for our future, and of "the devastating failures that came before" but no detail is forthcoming, no personal information, no history, so that he functions as a troubled everyman, voyaging half way round the world in order to undertake a journey of self-discovery. Michael Eaude reviewing the book in The Independent regrets that around 15 pages of the original, giving some extra background to the weather official, have been omitted from the translation, but the blankness of the character seems to be one of the book's strengths.
At the end of the very first chapter, he declares that his "description isn't trustworthy", something which combines with the narrative style to scream 'gothic' at the reader. Part of the delight of this novel, however, is that it turns out not to be what it first appears, but actually draws skilfully and convincingly on many different genres – horror, science fiction, magical realism – in a way that demands comparisons with Wells, Lovecraft, Kafka, Borges, Poe, B-movies and other things besides, to create something that feels both familiar and new.
It is perhaps in this tension between the familiar and new that the horror of the novel lies. It is clear from the outset that the sailors transporting the weather official are not comfortable with the idea of leaving him there, the narrator himself feels a great unease about the island as soon as they land, the previous incumbent has vanished, there is a naked madman in the lighthouse – these things seem comfortingly predictable, imbued with an air of nostalgia. That the narrator's cottage is besieged on his first night by terrifying, amphibious monsters things still seems entirely to be expected, as is his decision to go and take refuge with Gruner, the madman in the lighthouse. What disturbs the reader, moving things away from the comfort of these well-rehearsed tropes is the unflinching details the narrator reveals about his observations, feelings and actions, and the tenderness that underlies his descriptions of his battles with Gruner and with the relentless hordes of monsters. Nothing is withheld in the interest of presenting him in a better light; he does not construct himself as either likeable or admirable.
Gruner has captured a monster of his own, a female he describes as the mascot. Always treated badly by Gruner, she acts as his housekeeper and concubine. The weather official records in minute detail the sounds and rhythms of Gruner's daily liaisons with the mascot, which last for anything up to four hours. He is simultaneously repulsed and compelled by the creature and eventually embarks on his own secret affair with her that transcends any prior sexual experience and further unsettles his relationship with Gruner and with the monstrous hordes. The narrator seeks a peaceful resolution but in this place of madness and terror he is doomed to failure, and all the while the monsters keep appearing from the sea, advancing on the lighthouse to be slaughtered in massive numbers, their only advantage a seeming disregard for their losses. This irresolvable struggle reminded me again and again of Edwin Muir's poem 'The Combat' about a fight "not meant for human eyes", its closing stanza in particular:
"And now, while the trees stand watching, still
The unequal battles rages there,
And the killing beast that cannot kill
Swells and swells in his fury till
You'd almost think it was despair."
It is indeed a beautifully written and seductive novel of despair, of failure, and the horror of being unable to isolate oneself from the madness and contradictions of being human.
This article first appeared in Vector 247. Back issues of Vector are available from