The Island

The island is about twenty kilometres in diameter and lies in the Atlantic Ocean on the Tropic of Cancer between Cape Verde and the Canary Islands. In the course of my stay I could only guess at its shape; on maps it always looked like a small circle. It seems that no publisher thinks enough of this region to commission the drawing up of a proper map. Only after my return did I first see a more detailed cartographical representation of the island, in a scale of 1:300,000; this was in a slim paperbound volume from late-nineteenth-century England which took the island as its subject. (For some reason it referred to it as St George’s Island.) I found this book in an antiquarian bookseller’s in Munich’s Schellingstrasse; its leaves were falling out and tiny flakes of paper jumped from its pages as I turned them. I took it with me to a small Italian coffee house in nearby Türkenstrasse, where I sat over a sweet espresso and studied the map.

The island of the map was like a jellyfish, its waving tentacles the headlands and promontories of rock separated by wide, rounded bays. The eastern side of the island had been hatched by the cartographers of old with loving care almost in its entirety; this hatching, reminiscent of crumpled fabric, modelled faithfully the slopes and gorges of the mountain ranges, with the greatest peak marked on the map with a little white cloud and recorded as 3,400 feet high. As the mountains of the east dropped sharply to the sea, the hatching became denser, remaining so until it was cut off by the thick black line of the coast. In the island’s centre the hatching suddenly disappeared for the stretches of stony upland plain which are overgrown with low bushes. The cartographer had represented the cold lake that lies in a shallow depression with a small oval, but the three mountain streams that rise in the slopes and whose waters are gathered in the lake, perhaps seemed to him too paltry, and their beds, which the current fumbles to find in the rainy season, too uncertain to bother with. But the river, which flows out of the lake and on which lie both the island’s towns, had been rendered conscientiously with all its bends. As the river approaches the sea its flow becomes lazy; on the map it seemed that the engraver’s hand had faltered. West of the lake the hatching returned, now less dense than in the east; here were the slopes out of which the upland plain dropped to the coastal flats, the most fertile part of the island. It was here that I often walked under the trees; behind their greyish trunks was the dark-blue canvas of the sea, and against their dark leaves the berries shone yellow, red and orange. It was from these berries that the islanders made their celebrated jellies and pastes.

Someone who had never been on the island might be mystified by the place on the map where the hatching of its western side was intersected by the line of the river. Perhaps he would be unable to say what it meant; he might think he was looking at the rough traces left by a sudden mental disturbance on the part of the cartographer. In this place the hatching suddenly thickens, while the line of the river frays into fibres which get ever thinner, as if the river had decided to disappear, before the delicate lines gradually come together again. Into this tangle of hatches and threads a little black wheel is set, of the kind used on maps to indicate a town. The area represented by this jumble of lines is stranger still than it appears on the map. Here the gentle, fertile slopes of the west become a rocky scarp, through which the river cuts as it flows out of the lake; ledges of rock divide the river into many branches. On islets of stone between these branches the inhabitants of the island built the upper town, a kind of vertical Venice. Beneath this the waters of the river merge again in a single stream which flows unhurriedly to the coastal flats, through a corridor of high bulrushes which sway in the wind, which never quite dies on the island, down to the lower town, at whose harbour it joins the sea. In the Munich coffee house my feet recalled the hot sandy earth of the coastal flats, how one’s shoes would sink into it and dry, thorny stalks would keep cracking under one’s soles. When I looked up from the book I saw on the white wall like a faded film images of the sand lifted by the wind, like a yellow veil rippling over the ground.

The island’s only road joins the lower with the upper town; in its final stretch it becomes nothing more than a widish path carved into the rock. On the coastal flats the road follows the river, and in stretches it is difficult to find beneath the sand scattered over it by the wind. But as there are no automobiles on the island, no one minds this. (The islanders know nothing about technology, and they dislike noise, speed and sudden movement.) Apart from two broken motorboats left by seamen in the harbour, the visitor will discover a single testimony to the modern world: one day a boat with a cable in tow landed on the island, since which time a telephone box has stood on the harbour’s stone jetty. The only people to use this are the seamen from the boats; there are no other telephones on the island and the islanders know no one abroad whom they might telephone.

With the exception of the western slopes which extend between the coastal flats and the plateau, the island is not particularly fertile, but in many places its earth conceals colourful stones immediately below the surface. The mining and trading of precious and semi-precious stones is the islanders’ main employment, and in the harbour of the lower town boats with British, American, Italian, Spanish and Greek flags—and, quite often, the gaily-coloured flag of some African state—are forever lying at anchor. The islanders obtain most things they need in exchange for precious stones. To this trade in export we can add certain culinary specialities and fine papers produced from reeds.

There is no money on the island, a fact which in the 1960s provoked a French writer of the Left to produce an article which makes a point of describing the island’s society as a prototype for selfless brotherhoods of the future. The fallacy at the centre of his thesis is quite laughable: the islanders had not the remotest interest in philanthropy and humanism; indeed, their language possessed no words to give expression to these concepts. While the islanders’ absolute lack of appreciation for the accumulation of money was estimable and did much to clarify their behaviour, it was also connected with features of their character which were more difficult to take and by which I was often exasperated. Money is nothing but a pile of memory and anticipation by which we unchain ourselves from our given circumstances; the accumulation of money is a form of asceticism which keeps hold of forces so that these may later form new shapes and deeds. Time on the island knew no such barriers. It knew no lulls and hardships; it was a monotonous milling of many weak energies, all of which ran flat as soon as they emerged. What went on here was reminiscent of the endless rearrangement of the fragments of colour in a kaleidoscope; there were moments when I found these figures fascinating and more beautiful than anything I had seen in Europe, but there were others when they seemed to me superficial, disagreeable and boring.

I have mentioned already that the inhabitants of the island did not call it by any name. They did not like fixed names and changed their own with great frequency; in the course of his life, each islander had dozens of names. A new name might come into being by the bearer’s accepting a corrupted pronunciation he had heard somewhere of the name by which he had gone up to this point, or he might adopt a name by which someone addressed him in error. At the same time the islanders understood names as things which established a certain dialogue with the things they designated. Names were saturated with the qualities of things, but they also worked on these things and transformed them. In this dialogue both names and things matured, underwent change and perished. Some people might think it strange that while on the one hand the islanders conceded so much power to the name, on the other they could quite light-mindedly accept as their own a name which had come into being by chance. But the inhabitants of the island believed that it was precisely names with their origins in errors, slips of the tongue or mishearings which in their dialogue with things had the power to surprise—that it was these names which embedded themselves in their unprotected side, from where their most interesting voice was wrung.

Whenever an islander accepted a name, he tended to adjust his behaviour so that it corresponded to the new name. Islanders also went through periods when they lived without a name. I believe that in the past the island, too, had various names, and it will surely have a great many names in the future, but my time there coincided with a time when the last name had expired and the next had not yet come into being. The islanders would forget the island’s past names, just as they forgot the names they themselves had had in childhood and youth. I, too, had several names while I was on the island and I, too, have forgotten what they were, with one exception; this was a word which in their language designated a bird similar to a pelican, and perhaps I got it because my European name was similar to this word. In the time that this word was my name, I came to recognise in myself certain qualities I shared with the bird; already I was so steeped in the mores of the island that I caught myself imitating its strange walk and the timbre of its voice. Was it the name which had imposed these traits upon me or were they already present within me, waiting for discovery and restoration by the new name? But as the others never gave a thought to such things, nor did I agonise over them.