The Island of Last Truth
We love how Catalonia celebrates books each 23 April. On the day of Sant Jordi in Barcelona as in Catalonia, people give one another a rose or a book. Not only couples do this. The Generalitat in Plaça de Sant Jaume is open to the public, and in the palace and around it there is a large rose market and you can buy books everywhere. Immerse yourself in the Catalan language by reading an extract of Flavia Company’s book The Island of Last Truth with translations in Spanish and English. Check the links at the bottom of the page to find the extracts and the history of the Diada of Sant Jordi.
The Island of Last Truth by Flavia Company. Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin
I have attempted here to lay bare with the unreserve of a last hour’s confession the terms of my relation with the sea, which beginning mysteriously, like any great passion the inscrutable Gods send to m rtals, went on unreasoning and invincible, sur viving the test of disillusion, defying the disenchantment that lurks in every day of a strenuous life; went on full of love’s delight and love’s anguish, facing them in open-eyed exultation, without bitterness and without repining, from the first hour to the last.
-JOSEPH CONRAD, The Mirror of the Sea
When reverie and memory become confused, and fatigue and anguish set themselves up as lord and master, one must turn to all sorts of ruses so as not to abandon oneself to despair. My situation didn’t differ greatly from that of a convict, locked in a dark dungeon, given food and drink at the most absurd and unpredictable times. I was scared of losing the notion of time.
-CRISTINA FERNANDEZ CUBAS, The Year of Grace
I don’t remember who introduced me to Dr. Prendel. However, I do know that it was at the home of Martin Fleming, the psychiatrist, during a get-together of the faculty professors to celebrate his promotion from Assistant Dean to Dean, and I was immediately captivated by his reserved, taciturn attitude and the indifference with which he looked around him, as if he knew exactly what would happen and what would be said.
I also remember that it was Amy Fleming, Martin’s wife, who told me of a certain legend that was circulating regard ing Dr. Prendel. What’s more, accidentally and not too long ago, Amy had met Prendel’s dentist, and she’d told her that when he came to her clinic for the first time, she could clearly see by the state of his teeth that his diet had been irregular for a long period of time. This didn’t prove but did strengthen the hypothesis that expert sailor Prendel had been shipwrecked years before, when his boat, the Queen, was attacked by a pirate ship. He’d lost his crew and his boat. He was left alive, a stroke of luck that, depending on the circumstances, is relative. The thing is Mathew Prendel disappeared for five years and at the time I was introduced to him, he’d been back in New York for four years, more or less. Since then, he’d been invited on more than one occasion to the parties the Flemings organized for one reason or another, parties he’d attended only rarely in the past. Everyone was dying to see a shipwrecked person up close. Dr. Prendel, however, had never accepted the invitation until that day, and after that day he never wanted to return.
According to those who had ever spent time with him, he was unrecognizable; not only his physical appearance, but above all his character. They also said that what had truly destroyed him wasn’t the shipwreck, but the news on his return that his father had died alone, under the torrid Texan sun, sitting in the only chair on the sparse grass of his lawn. It seems his father had asked him many times not to let him die alone.
Among those who had known him best, there were those who said he wasn’t even Prendel, but naturally no one said this to his face and afterwards I never told him any of these rumors. He had enough misfortune, my poor doctor, being incapable ‘of recognizing anyone from the past, as if being shipwrecked had erased his memory. Later I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t amnesia, but defeat.
The doctor was a tall, thin man with large hands. Strong and attractive, without a doubt. Black hair already graying. A slight limp on his right leg. He was forty-five and lived on an “income.” No one knew of what this income con sisted. There were those who speculated about the possibility of the boat’s insurer rs having paid him compensation of millions, but it was a baseless hypothesis. He never wanted to talk of his adventures to anyone. He did say that being shipwrecked was such an intimate experience that, as little modesty as one might have, it should be kept to oneself. Since his return to New York, Prendel was the favorite topic at these parties, and it seems that so he was once again after that day he accepted the invitation. I never went back myself.
It was easy to understand that, in reality, there was no one left who really knew him: he’d lost his partner years before, his friends during the attack, his father in his absence. Mathew Prendel was alone, and furthermore, he was a loner, and maybe that was what made me feel an immediate complicity with him, the prodigious feeling of recognizing in his glance a demand equal to what I could give.
I hadn’t heard anything about the whole shipwreck thing because I’d spent the last five years of my life falling apart in a marriage with no future and imparting classes in English literature at the University of Vienna, the city most closely resembling a postcard that I’ve ever seen. Among other things, I’d learned from the Viennese to discipline my impulsive, rash character and to adopt a reserved attitude even to what most stimulated my curiosity, for example a twenty-first-century pirate attack. When I was put before Prendel, nonetheless, I felt I was meeting Conrad or Stevenson. “You’ve got too much literature in your head,” my grandfather would have said. Then added, “Watch that guy, little one, one can see in your eyes that you like him and there’s something about him that doesn’t suit you.”
At no time did I doubt the legend. At no time did I think it might be a falsified story, a trivial anecdote embellished to the extreme and that, for example, Prendel could have lost his boat a few w met rs off the coast of Africa due to a more prosaic collision with a rock or another boat and later on, rumors had made it into a heroic exploit. I knew I couldn’t ask him about it. And Amy said and everyone who ever came across him knew, Mathew Prendel had always maintained an absolute silence on the subject. So I sat by his side, drinking whiskey and listening to him explaining that African masks were in fact religious symbols with the function of stabilizing the lives of the villages. “Drink too much,” my grandfather would have said, “and there’s always a reason, Phoebe; people always drink the problems they can’t solve in the form of alcohol.”
Prendel had been a surgeon and later on, a professor at Columbia University. But his real passion was the sea. He was captain of a yacht. His hoarse, virile voice rang out above the others, or so I thought. I also thought that being a doctor would have helped him to survive the shipwreck. And captaining a yacht would have made him used to being alone. There are people equipped to be shipwrecked, people among whom I could never count myself, a professor of comparative literature who barely knew how to swim.
My friendship with Dr. Prendel bore fruit rapidly, per haps because at a certain’ age the capacity for risk, if it has survived, turns out to be immense.
We were lovers for almost seven years. One of my aims was to endure longer than his shipwreck. As if some kind of rivalry or competition could be established with some thing like that. “You always want to defeat impossible opponents, Phoebe; opponents that aren’t even there. You take after your mother.” My victory has been bitter and, in truth, transient, because a “shipwreck” endures much longer than a shipwreck. It is lik a lantern: it illuminates what you shine it on and the rest as well.
He asked me not to tell his story until after his death. But to tell it. “You who know literature, Dr. Westore, and have sailed with me, you may write it.” We always spoke formally to each other; it was our game. And I promised
him I would do it. It’s absurd, but promises to the dead are pressing. Absurd because the dead can’t care whether they are carried out. People usually fulfill promises to the dead with more zeal than those they make to the living: “I will write your story, Dr. Prendel,” I assured him. “But before hand you must tell it to me.” After seven years of sleeping by his side, he hadn’t told me a single detail. The surprise attack of the illness changed everything for him. “We know we have to die,” he told me, “but we’re not conscious of it until our hour comes.” I remembered what my grandfather used to say: “Perhaps death is the best part of life. We’ll have to wait and see.”