Widely recognised as one of the most singular voices of contemporary Galician literature, Berta Dávila is also an author who’s always pushing the boundaries of her writing. In that sense, Disappointment Island is without a doubt her most structurally innovative novel, although strictly speaking, it would be more accurate to describe it as two novels. After her narrator has completed a first novel, Certain Homes, shortly before the global pandemic that found all of Spain’s residents confined to their homes, she begins annotating loose thoughts and ideas with relevance to the novel that she had, not long before, felt was finished. The result is a second novel, Disappointment Island, written ‘into the seams’ of the first, not necessary to its plot but adding endless thematic depth and acting as a sort of in-between space where the narrator can comment on her own work and thought processes. Much of the brilliance of this book comes from the elegant, deceptive simplicity of Dávila’s writing, but no less fascinating are her passages through simulated reality in a video game reminiscent of Animal Crossing in Disappointment Island, and the wild, unlikely friendship the narrator establishes with the Frenchwoman living in her childhood apartment in Certain Homes.
I dreamt that I lost my home.
And in the dream, my home wasn’t the place where I currently live, but a realm of my own. I referred to it just like that, as ‘my home,’ and it truly was mine. In the dream, I hadn’t lost my home to a fire, or because I’d been evicted; it just wasn’t where it was supposed to be, as if you could lose a home as easily as you might a book behind a piece of furniture or a sock between your sheets. I’m picking out each word carefully, like they’re cherries at the supermarket, grabbing hold of only the words that seem ripe: place, realm, home.
I woke up to find my son in bed with me. We spent the first few hours of the morning together clearing away the scattered refuse of our dreamlife. By that night, I had lost almost all memory of what went on in the dream, but the sense of strangeness persisted. I started to write some notes that I thought might help me conjure up that exact feeling in the future, then gave my youngest sister a call and told her we should visit our childhood home.
Our childhood home was a small, old apartment on a side street in the city’s historic district. My parents rented it a couple years after I was born. My sister reminded me that people probably lived there and that it had been over twenty years since we’d moved out of the apartment, so there was almost no chance of it being the same as it had been. She also said it would be hard to explain the reason for our intrusion to total strangers. ‘Please? I really want you to come with me,’ I begged. She gave in.
I wanted my sister there, I think, because it would be like seeing the apartment with one of the pieces of furniture that still inhabited it in my memory. My sister is a part of that apartment; if she was there, it might look more the way I remembered it.
Like dreams, memory has the generic look of a theme park, a hodgepodge of simplified models from an ideal universe.
I remember every single theme park I’ve ever been to – the scaleless maps, the streets named after made-up people; the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round at the Prater in Vienna; the stickers that give you unlimited rides at every part of the Parque de Atracciones in Madrid.
Right now, as I’m writing, I can hear, from the living room, the opening notes to the soundtrack of Annie Hall, which is on TV tonight. The father of my son once told me that it’s my movie, and that I could be Annie. But I feel more like Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s character, forever tormented by trivial things. I had forgotten about the scene where Alvy talks about how he lived under the roller coaster at Coney Island as a kid, and how it was one of the most beautiful places you could be. My childhood, too, was stirred by the tremors of a roller coaster.
Theme parks calm me because they fit neatly into their designated spaces, and, by nature, have strict, often arbitrary rules. A theme park is an enclosed capsule where you can do everything if you’re organised enough. It becomes possible to conceive of a finite universe when you’re there.
There are always lost children sobbing at theme parks. I can see now that I move through the world trying to find the places I’ve lost, which is why I have this burning desire to go back to my childhood home. I’m not afraid of what I might find there, yet I continue to postpone the visit. I do the same with the books I write: as soon as I’ve got a detailed conception of their shape and their needs, I set them aside for a long time. That way, I can incubate them like still-growing eggs that occasionally get lost.
I should live on an island. Maybe there, my ideas wouldn’t get lost, or if they did, they’d fall into the ocean.
Lacking an outlet, my overbearing urge to visit my childhood home begins to dissipate as other ideas and urgent needs crop up. I have to move out of my place and find another. I dedicate all my hours to apartment-hunting. As soon as I’ve found one that seems suitable, I contact the cheapest moving company in the city to arrange to have my things moved. It takes an entire weekend to pack everything into cardboard boxes, and like so many other times, I tell myself I’m going to get rid of things that I don’t end up getting rid of.
The movers arrive punctually on a Tuesday morning and load my furniture and boxes into a van parked on the kerb. They stack the boxes in rows and columns of five in the smallest room in the apartment, erecting a cardboard shrine. The lightest boxes are less than a foot from the ceiling, so the crown of the pyramid holds the rugs, couch cushions, bedsheets, and my son’s baby clothes, along with the tablecloths my grandmother sewed for me a long time ago. The heaviest boxes are on are on the floor, so my French dictionaries and all of my books form the base of the pyramid. In the moving process, some of the boxes lost their labels, on which I’d written what was in them. I’m surprised at all the space my belongings take up.
By Berta Dávila
Translated by Jacob Rogers
From DISAPPOINTMENT ISLAND
By Berta Dávila
Translated and introduced by Jacob Rogers
Published by Editorial Galaxia (2020)
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Berta Dávila is a Galician poet and novelist. She recently received the Premio Xerais de Novela prize for Os seres queridos, which 3TimesRebelPress will publish in 2023 as Loved Ones, translated by Jacob Rogers. Dávila runs the independent publishing house Rodolfo e Priscila.
Jacob Rogers is a translator of Galician and Spanish. His translation of Manuel Rivas’s The Last Days of
Terranova was published by Archipelago Books in autumn 2022, and his translation of Berta Dávila’s Loved Ones is forthcoming from 3TimesRebel Press in late 2023.