In “Strychnine,” the second story of Elvira Navarro’s collection, Rabbit Island (164 pages; Two Lines Press; translated by Christina MacSweeney), an unnamed narrator wanders an unnamed city while struggling to write a story—her story. The only thing she can decide on is a style: “She wants to enter this aura of serene iciness she has just imagined, which is also the tone she wants for her text.”
But the narrator’s project becomes hindered by the growth of a strange protrusion from her right ear–a paw with toes that have small mouths. The paw hangs painfully from her earlobe, garnering sideways looks on the street. Eventually, it takes over her writing, scribbling incomprehensibly over the narrator’s notes.
Though brief, “Strychnine” perfectly exemplifies the haunting coldness and, well, weirdness that distinguishes the prose, characters, settings, and events of Rabbit Island. These eleven short stories are masterful and strange; they display Navarro’s command over the form and the magical realist genre while simultaneously expanding the limits of what magical realism can do in the story form.
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As we read, we cannot help but imagine that the unnamed author-figure of “Strychnine” is the author of the entire book, her writing taken over by the alien limb attached to her body. And aptly so, for Rabbit Island is concerned with the theme of estrangement. Navarro creates people and places that are impersonal and distanced, like the narrator in “Strychnine” who writes “as though she were a stranger to herself.” Bizarre physical and mental transformations turn her characters half-human, half-animal—thrown into states of being that disrupt their sense of self and cause them to act on compulsion.
In “Gums,” a woman and her husband, Ismael, find their honeymoon interrupted by Ismael’s gum infection. When the painful infection doesn’t go away with antibiotics, Ismael confides to his wife: “I’m turning into an insect.” Skeptical, she looks into his mouth, and there is all the proof she needs: under the tooth besides the gums “was also another sort of tissue, reminiscent of the tight-fitting shell of a beetle.”
Like animals, Navarro’s characters often act on unconscious instincts. In the title story, a man Navarro calls “the non-inventor” (he invents from his own mind objects that have already been invented) attempts to breed white rabbits on a small island he has decided to inhabit. He wants to starve the quickly breeding rabbits so they resort to eating the eggs of the birds that nest there, hoping they can eventually eliminate the annoyance of the pestilential, squawking swarm. Driven by hunger, however, the rabbits begin attacking and eating the birds themselves—and then, horrifyingly, they begin attacking and eating their own kind.
Through this story, and the others in Rabbit Island, we see humankind’s false illusion of control over nature—over the organisms of the earth as well as over human nature. Watching the macabre spectacle of the cannibalistic rabbits, the non-inventor “renounced the idea that these animals were an extension of himself.” But by then it is too late: his transformation has already begun, and with his graying hair and bloodshot eyes he “was beginning to feel like one of them.” Like in “Strychnine” and “Gums,” the line between human and creature hardly exists; one instance can change us into something we do not recognize. We are not so far from insects as we think.
If Navarro’s characters are always presented in states of metamorphosis, her settings are physical manifestations of this threshold: midnight hotels, the rainy streets of Paris, cemeteries, and a volcano. One woman even enters the space of other people’s dreams. These places are conducive to transience and change, and together with the characters that inhabit them, they form an alternate world simultaneously alien and recognizable.
The world of Rabbit Island is one of uncertainty, where you can meet anyone and anything can happen. But Navarro navigates these spaces with spectral artfulness and ease; her authorial home is in the liminal. She is like Older Brother in her story “Notes on the Architecture of Hell,” whose shadow seamlessly moves through the rooms of a building with “no pause between one room and the next, as if the walls had been demolished,” drawing us deeper and deeper into the unknown.