Read The Island of Last Truth Online

Authors: Flavia Company,Laura McGloughlin

The Island of Last Truth

Europa Editions
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
[email protected]
www.europaeditions.com
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2011 by Random House Mondadori S.A.
First publication 2012 by Europa Editions
Translation by Laura McGloughlin
Original Title:
L'illa de l'última veritat
Translation copyright © 2012 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
www.mekkanografici.com
ISBN 9781609458690

Flavia Company

THE ISLAND OF LAST TRUTH

Translated from the Catalan
by Laura McGloughlin

Toast
Now I have an island, I wish to toast C.C.,
who is the sea in which it lies.

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 mortals, went on unreasoning and invincible, surviving 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 FERNÁNDEZ CUBAS
,
The Year of Grace

PREFACE

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 regarding 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 in his right leg. He was forty-five and lived on an “income.” No one knew of what this income consisted. There were those who speculated about the possibility of the boat's insurers having paid him compensation of millions, but it was a baseless hypothesis. He never wanted to talk of his adventure 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 meters 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. As 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, perhaps 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 something 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 like 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 beforehand 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.”

THE SHIPWRECK OF MATHEW PRENDEL
Phoebe Westore
PART ONE
1.

The first incongruity that occupies Mathew Prendel's mind is thinking, just as he feels the roughness of the damp sand against his face, that he doesn't know if he is alive. It is pitch-black night, and he doesn't know if being alive is a stroke of luck either. He remembers the salty hell of the last few hours. How he has managed to arrive at a beach is unknown. He didn't even know there was an island at a distance he could cover swim­ming. The last coordinates taken with the GPS, which he'd noted meticulously on the map, fifteen minutes before the attack, gave a latitude and longitude of open sea many days' sailing from any point of dry land. They were more than eight hundred miles from the west coast of Africa. They'd left Jamestown a week before and were expecting to reach São Tomé, all going well and wind permitting, in eight or ten more days.

Katy Bristol was in the cockpit, gathering up the spinnaker. The wind, although light, had changed direction and the sail could no longer hold the course. Frank Czerny was in the cabin, making sandwiches for lunch. Mathew was steering. They were moving at a rate of six or eight knots, with a cross wind; a sufficient quantity of clouds, none threatening, defended them from the scorching heat of the midday Atlantic sun, at a point some five hundred miles southeast of the coordinates uniting the equator with the prime meridian. Katy put the spinnaker pole in its cover, went down to the cabin with the spinnaker folded up and back in the bag, made a joke about Frank's poor cooking in a very loud voice so Mathew would hear it too, and came back up top. She was carrying the binoculars. She was fond of using them even when there was nothing definite to be seen except the horizon which, despite always seeming much the same, changed according to the spirits of the person contemplating it. They were discussing the celebration they were going to have when they passed the equator. Katy was most insistent on the menu. She wanted them to prepare a special meal; she was tired of tins and sandwiches. All three were more or less in agreement that they had earned a celebration. As they were talking, Katy was looking through the binoculars. Suddenly, in a voice not altogether calm, she said:

“There's a yacht, port side. Three or four miles away. I can't see what flag they're flying. Looks big.” The noise of the motor still hadn't reached them.

Mathew suspected that Katy was afraid. Some colleagues they'd met up with in Jamestown port on the island of Saint Helena had told them blood-curdling stories of pirates attacking sailors in the region, with a cruelty as unnecessary as it was unchanging. It was strange, because piracy was usually concentrated on the east coast of the African continent, but they assured them that at least one dangerous vessel which had caused the disappearance of more than one sailboat was operating in these waters. It wasn't their principal objective, because they made a living from contraband, but if they came across one, they plundered it.

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