Early evening: the sky is unsually free of clouds. There is an impressive array of fixed and shooting stars. The sight brings tears to my eyes. My thoughts dwell on the latitude and the positioning of the firmament. I am so far from home that the constellations have come unhinged from their usual positions and I am unable to recognise them. But we must accept that there is no such thing as chaos. It is simply the human incapacity to assimilate new arrangement and ordering in the world. The universe is not susceptible to chaos; we are.
The synopsis and the blurbs struggle to fully embrace the bouquet of genres and themes Albert Sánchez Piñol weaves in Cold Skin, translated from the Catalan by Cheryl Leah Morgan. They call it a horror, a gothic novel, an unconventional thriller, and an allegorical tale on colonialism and xenophobia. In addition to all that’s been pinned down as the central themes of Cold Skin, I am tempted to argue that the novel is a man’s odyssey from the scaffoldings of survival to the lighthouse of compassion, and a love story that’s disgusting and problematic at the outset and entirely plausible and heartbreaking at the end.
‘We are never very far from those we hate. For this very reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love,’ the nameless narrator opens Cold Skin. He is on a ship, to be deposited in an island, which is barely a mile long, to observe the harsh polar winds in isolation. It’s during an unidentifiable time after the First World War. If the clocks of bureaucracy don’t break, he will be replaced by the next official in twelve months. He hopes to watch the wind and looks forward to enjoying the company of philosophers, thinkers, and writers through their words. What he encounters, though, is an island that teems with monsters, and a castaway whose mind has been permanently altered by the island.
The original includes information about the narrator’s life before he comes to the island, but in the English version, we rely on the narrator to drop crumbles here and there, and it does take some effort to connect the dots. We know that, in someone’s eyes, he is a traitor, maybe a deserter. So, he arrives expecting peace and a year of reflection in a strip of land that’s thousands of miles away from civilisation. What he gets is what his imagination is not capable of conjuring up; what he gets is a war with an enemy who is unpredictable and incomprehensible, burning of books to protect himself, rifles which won’t stop ringing, an unusual friendship, a lot of fornication that’s deemed taboo, and an unrequited love. The island teaches the narrator, ‘It just went to show that humanity was caught up in a series of invisible gears, destined to turn forever on themselves.’
Reviewers opine that the book is reminiscent of The Shape of Water, written by Daniel Kraus and Guillermo del Toro, but Cold Skin was published in 2002, nearly fifteen years before The Shape of Water, the movie and the book, was released. I am not familiar with Daniel Kraus’s others works to decide if Cold Skin is one among the first in contemporary literature to follow a love story that grows between a man and a beast, but to observe that Cold Skin has echoes of The Shape of Water is chronologically wrong and even a bit unfair. However, both the books present a question that boundlessly interests me — who are monsters? Us or them?
Cold Skin is an exercise in tolerance for readers who operate in absolutism, the very thing that the book painstakingly rips apart. On the surface, there is all sorts of violence. The first fifty pages don’t try to convince either. If that’s all would be sampled to test the novel’s merit, it would be cancelled before it’s given a chance to finish elevating its intention to action. There is blood and gore and abuse and a war that’s unforgiving, but that’s when it’s key to make the decision to not read Cold Skin like an unputdownable thriller that focusses on a man’s survival at the cost of suggesting extermination of whom he perceives as monsters, but as a loud meditation on humanity, war, loneliness, love, and our place in the cosmos.
On his second day on the island, after a sleepless, the most terrifying night of his life, the narrator says, ‘My own vulnerability terrified me as much as the monsters.’ The more I read that sentence, the more amused I am by the sentence’s universality. In some sense, this life is a war. Whom we believe are our friends, turn out to be monsters; whom we believe are dangerous monsters are benevolent humans underneath that misunderstood exterior. We cannot know at all times, and we shouldn’t be expected to know. The war is the effort we make to protect ourselves, incarcerated by our own defenses sometimes. The transition from monstrosity to compassionate human is not always linear too. The absolutism doesn’t come into effect here again. We are in a twilight zone, waiting and watching, to choose humans-cum-monsters-cum-humans, to give them the gift of our vulnerability.