Usually after I finish reading a book, I know exactly how I experienced it. Sentences and scenes can stay with me for days. With The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre I wasn’t sure of my ‘final judgement’. It was such a mixed bag. I thoroughly enjoyed some parts, but struggled with others. And it’s hard to summarise in a few lines what the book is about, which can be a good thing.
Ivor Punch is an old man and former policeman on a small island in the west of Scotland. He doesn’t speak much. But when he does, he throws in the word fuck every few lines, a habit that I found utterly annoying, because it made him come across as an imbecile, and it halted things, I didn’t see the point of it. But what Ivor does do really well, is write loads of letters (which, again, he peppers with countless fucks). The letters are revealing, touching and very true, and are the framework of the story. All those letters are linked to island stories, to the people who live(d) on it, including multiple Punch generations. Fiction and facts are liberally mixed up.
To me, the storyline that was head and shoulders above the others was about Henrietta Bird, the stay-at-home sister of the Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, her one moment of passion with one of the incommunicative Punch men and a visit from Charles Darwin (who is introduced as a kind of counterpart to the strong Christian faith on the island), who comes to Mull to officially reveal the new clock in Tobermory, but doesn’t quite make it on the day. I would have been really interested in reading more about these two sisters and Henrietta’s life on Mull; a subject worthy of its own novel.
An example of fiction mixed with fact is that the building of the clock tower in the harbour of Tobermory on Mull was indeed funded by Isabelle Bird in memory of her beloved sister Henrietta.
I loved it that the island is at the heart of the book. The relationship with the land and the sea, with all the things you can lose as an island. Many eccentrics inhabit the book. There is folklore, grief, disgrace, clifftop landscapes and a headless horseman. As a non-islander I felt the magic of it, but also the oppression, the possibilities, the history you can only really understand if you or your family were part of it.
After finishing the book, I came across the afterword – first published as an article in the Irish Times, called Mull of Colin MacIntyre; from stage to page. I read the book on an e-reader, so hadn’t really leafed through the book before I started, otherwise I may have read it first. And I wish I had , as it cleared many things up for me. I would have understood and perhaps appreciated the book more.
Here you can hear and see author Colin MacIntyre tell you a bit more about his debut novel.
Sometimes an island pops up in an unexpected spot.
In the hectic city centre of Rome, the Tiber splits in two to create space for an island: Isola Tiberina. Just as in the rest of the Eternal City, this islet is steeped in legendary anecdotes. It abounds in spectacle and horrors that dull its true history.
Isola Tiberina is moored like a ship in a bend of the river, the concrete stem riveted to one of Ponte Garibaldi’s piles.
Myths speak of Tarquinus Superbus as the central figure of the island’s genesis. Farmers threw their corn harvests in the River Tiber, furious at the iniquitous policy of their ruler. However, the stream of the river did not carry away the corn, but held it in one place and thereby formed Isola Tiberina. A more bloodthirsty version describes that not corn was thrown in the river, but the body of Tarquinius. Sludge and plants stuck to the corpse, which grew into an island.
The truth is not as sinister. Like all of Rome, the island consists of volcanic rock.
In popular speech, Ponte Fabricio is called the Jewish Bridge or the Four-headed Bridge. Rome’s oldest stone bridge connects the Jewish ghetto with the island. Four stone heads represent two Janus faces. Details have lost their recognition, faded and hollowed by the the ravages of time. Or perhaps these are not Janus faces, but the faces of the four architects Pope Sixtus V had ordered to be beheaded? It was their punishment because they failed to agree on the restoration work of Ponte Fabricio.
Rome counts over 900 churches, so it is no surprise that the small Tiber Island has its own house of worship: the Basilica San Bartolomeo all’Isola. The cathedral is dedicated to Bartholomew the Apostle, one of Jesus’s apostles, and martyr. He was skinned alive, hence his effigies with a knife or an arm with flayed skin like a rolled up shirt sleeve. Other historians claim he was not skinned, but crucified, upside down, his skull cleaved. His split skull is kept in the Frankfurt Cathedral and his bones are held in the island cathedral on Isola Tiberina.
In ancient times, a temple in honour of Asclepius, the god of medicine, stood where the Basilica is now. The pre-Christian legend recounts a ship that fared from Epidaurus in Greece along the River Tiber, carrying a statue of Asclepius. Or, according to another narrative, he came accompanied by a holy snake, the symbol of Asclepius. When the ship passed Isola Tiberina the snake was called into being and slithered onto the island. That was an abundantly clear sign for a temple to be built. To enforce the event, the island got a ship’s side made of travertine and an obelisk, to depict the mast of a Roman galleon. ‘Deliriant isti Romani’: A mad lot, those Romans.
The first sentence of Deux étés is made up of no less than 175 words. After reading it, I was somewhat discouraged and put it aside, at the bottom of my ‘must read’ pile. After a week or two, I picked it up again for a retry and found myself reading it in one go. And since then I can not help but wonder why this book was never adapted for the screen.
Place of action is an idyll : île de B., a Breton island, ”deterring the clouds; they keep their distance, as if they’re attached to the mainland. An irresistible smooth sky, it must be the caress of a sidetracked Gulf Stream. Flora from different climates, aloes, mimosas, palm trees, a piece of Sardinia in in the middle of the Channel.” Orsenna’s visual and colourful language makes you experience the blue of the ocean, the green of the trees and the variegated flower splendour.
The plot is equally film-worthy: one day translator Gilles arrives at île de B. He escaped Paris, taking his 47 cats and his Remington with him and moves into an old island cottage. He is commissioned to translate Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, a hell of a job. But Gilles prefers dead writers to the complicated Nabokov; dead writers never interfere with his translations. Besides, the translator rather drinks wine and have lively discussions with the island vicar than sit down at his loyal typewriter.
Meanwhile in Paris, his publisher is becoming increasingly impatient and Gilles is bombarded with letters and personal messengers that are sent to île de B. To no avail. Until the summer arrives and the island is flooded with holidaymakers. Under guidance of Mme de Saint-Exupéry (indeed, a descendant of …) they all do their bit and help to complete Ada.
The contemplative metaphors on the translator profession, the comical discussions with the publisher assistant from Paris and the poetic island views of the protagonist would have been perfect for the film scenario.
Erik Orsenna is the pseudonym of Eric Arnoult, a French politician and member of the Académie Française. The first-person narrator of Deux étés is Orsenna himself. His father’s family owned a holiday house on île de Bréhat where as a child he spent many memorable summer vacations. These memories have been woven into the novel. His website suggests that his love for the island has always remained.
Deux étés has not been translated into English. But in addition to the original French, you can read it in Dutch (Twee zomers) and German (Inselsommer).