Inger-Maria Mahlke’s award-winning novel Archipelago is set in Tenerife. It tells the story of the island as experienced by several families in reverse chronological order, from 2015 to 1919. Through an elliptical and small-scale narrative style that demands a great deal of attention from its readers, Mahlke illustrates the special role played by the volcanic Canary Islands in 20th century European history.
The geographical setting off the north-west coast of Africa, far from the European continent, makes Tenerife a unique location for European power games to play out. On the other hand, Tenerife is so far away that continental Europeans sometimes forget it. News from the European mainland and the Spanish centre of power in Madrid often arrive belatedly. Today, once more, Tenerife appears as an island off the beaten track, where everything must be wrested from nature. Mahlke uses this ambivalent setting between beauty and roughness, between relevance and insignificance, to great effect in her novel. Refracting her narrative through three Spanish families of different social classes, as well as British merchants, Mahlke offers snippet-like, multi-layered insights into possible island-destinies.
The book takes us, chapter by chapter, further into the past, from the year 2015 to New Year’s Eve 1919, when the past future begins. It was on this New Year’s Eve that Julio Baute, el portero, was born. But Julio was not always the doorman of the La Laguna retirement home. Privilege has never characterised his own experience of the world; he has only observed it in others. His father suffered the loss of his pharmacy and his son under the Franco regime, as Julio’s older brother remained missing after being imprisoned. Julio himself was a courier in the civil war and a prisoner of the fascists. He fled and then returned to the island. By marrying Bernarda, he becomes the owner of an electronics shop. The Bautes come to represent the middle class that supported the socialists. As a grumpy old man of over 90 who looks back on the 20th century, Julio does not understand his daughter Ana – how could she marry a Bernadotte and become a member of the conservative party?
The aristocratic, upper-class Bernadottes have a history of involvement with colonialism and were among the founders of the Falange, the right-wing party that was later disempowered by Franco. The disparate families of the Bernadottes and Bautes are joined together when Felipe Bernadotte and Ana Baute marry. The book begins in 2015 with their daughter Rosa. Felipe Bernadotte distances himself from his father Eliseo Bernadotte, whom he calls the last conquistador. Eliseo Bernadotte was, among other things, responsible for transporting weapons to the Spanish-Sahara. Eliseo’s father-in-law, Lorenzo González, was an early Falangist and became successful as the owner of a newspaper loyal to the party. All important decisions are made at his meetings with other powerful men at the Café Atlantico. As the youngest of this line of influential men, Felipe rebels against their nationalist political attitudes, but enjoys the financial security that they bring, especially after he experiences setbacks in his academic career.
The Bernadottes have had women of the Morales family working for them as cleaners for several generations. The women are on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. They are outcasts, and isolated. Socially insignificant as they are, their story also takes up the least space in the novel.
Finally, the novel shows the development of the Canary Islands from a British colony without a flag, to a strategically important base for the fascists, to a tourist stronghold. In the early 20th century, families from the British Isles exercised extensive power in Tenerife, mainly because they controlled the supply of fresh water from the mountains. They farmed the dry island and their trading houses for the export of tobacco, bananas and tomatoes were extremely successful. Before fascism, the Canary Islands were part of the British Empire, despite their belonging to Spain: Canary Wharf in London was built especially to accomodate this trade. Sidney Fellows, one of the successful British traders describes Tenerife as “…a huge international crossroads where several sea routes converge …. Like a stagecoach station, only for ships” (270).
As you read Archipelago, the retrospective clarification given by each chapter allows you to better understand the present moment. On the one hand, Mahlke describes characters, family constellations and atmospheres in great detail, but on the other hand, some gaps do remain. The leaps through history do not always follow a clear logic – they leave room for imagining that the past and the future could always have looked quite different.
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