“For me, ghosts are never the spirits of strangers. They are the people I love most dearly,” confesses the narrator of one of the stories in Elvira Navarro’s collection Rabbit Island. Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, these stories often cross the line between delusion and reality, constructs that in Navarro’s hands prove to be less clearly defined than most of us like to believe.
Set mostly in a recognizably contemporary Spain, the stories in Rabbit Island plant themselves in territory that we often label the fantastic: a chef who boards at the hotel where she works starts to experience the dreams of fellow hotel guests; an aristocrat suffering from elephantiasis believes that he has seen a species of goat that has been extinct for five thousand years; a woman with a paw sprouting from her ear flees to North Africa so that she can she hide her deformity under a hijab. The structuralist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov defined “the fantastic” as a literary genre that hesitates between psychological and supernatural explanations to explain extraordinary occurrences, and Navarro’s work often lives and flourishes in this open space of uncertainty.
Navarro is the author of several novels, and her work has garnered her several literary prizes and critical acclaim in Spain. In her novel A Working Woman, also luminously translated by Christina MacSweeney, the narrator becomes obsessed with a roommate’s story of mental illness even as she too finds herself suffering a mental breakdown. As in A Working Woman, the characters in Rabbit Island are often faced with their own doubles and find their sense of autonomy challenged by their identification with another person or living creature. The cityscape through which Navarro’s characters wander comes to feel like a metaphor for the alienation and confusion of modern life, and indeed many of these stories end in indeterminate places.
In the title story, a man whose passion is “inventing things that have already been invented,” begins to visit a small, uninhabited island that is overrun by white birds. In an attempt to control the bird population, he introduces rabbits, hoping they will eat the birds’ eggs, but he notices that they initially hesitate to eat the hatchlings:
Their attitude, he thought, was in accord with the humanity they represented: his, their owner’s humanity. This is perhaps why he was surprised that, once their initial scruples were overcome, they didn’t even leave the bones, as any person would have. They attacked the birds’ throats with their sharp incisors, and a rim of blood the same color as their eyes would stain their wriggling noses and fine whiskers. Once they had eaten the meager flesh they would gnaw the skeleton clean; the sound was like the snapping of dry branches. They even ate the beak. Then they groomed themselves until their fur was white once again.
Soon, the rabbits have grown so accustomed to eating flesh that they are cannibalizing their own young. Despite his misgivings, the non-inventor can’t completely break away from identifying with the rabbits, and even believes that his own “rapidly graying hair” and increasingly blood-shot eyes make him look “like one of them.” “Rabbit Island” reads like a parable about human intervention into natural environments, yet part of its disturbing effect is the reader’s uncertainty about how much we can trust the perceptions of its main character.
In “Notes on the Architecture of Hell,” a young architecture student in Madrid finds that psychosis can be contagious as he spends time with an Older Brother who has long been institutionalized for mental illness. The story ends on the ghostly image of the Older Brother standing in the dome of a church that the reader knows to be inaccessible. “In Paris Periphérie,” the narrator’s search for a bureaucratic building on the outskirts of Paris becomes increasingly uncanny as the building constantly eludes her. And in “Memorial,” a woman grieves for her late mother, only to discover that her mother’s ghost seems to be trying to contact her on Facebook. Once again, we can’t be sure if the unfolding events are real in the world of the story or a delusion produced by the character’s grief, but by the time the reader reaches the story’s perfect and haunting ending, it hardly seems to matter.
The stories in Rabbit Island are beautiful, disquieting, and somewhat unhinged. They are the sort of stories whose narrative logic often defies easy categorization, even as their emotional spell lingers long after reading, like particularly vivid dreams.
By Elvira Navarro, Translated by Christina Macsweeney
Two Lines Press
Published February 9, 2021