Friday, 8 June 2018

Book Review: Islands of the Dying Light by Rolf Lappert
Islands, especially small ones that aren’t to be found on any map, often have an aura of the secret and the mysterious. And not without reason. The water surrounding them protects them from curious eyes and makes it almost impossible to enter them unnoticed. In other words, they are good hideaways for people who don’t wish to be seen because they are a little paranoid or – which is more likely – because they are engaged in activities that are morally questionable, if not illegal. The latter happens on the Islands of the Dying Light that Swiss author Rolf Lappert evokes in his novel about a brother and a sister who have come all the way from Ireland to the Philippines, the one to find out what happened to his sister, the other a while earlier to work with primates. Neither is welcome and both are drawn into a life-threatening sham.

Rolf Lappert was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in December 1958. He trained as a graphic designer, but dedicated himself to writing as from his twenties. In 1982 he brought out his first novel Folgende Tage (trans.: Following Days) and a volume of poetry titled Die Erotik der Hotelzimmer (trans.: The Erotics of Hotel Rooms). Along with short stories published in anthologies and periodicals, he produced several other novels and another poetry collection in the following two decades although at one point he took a long break from writing to set up a jazz club in Aarburg, Sitzerland, with a friend. As from the late 1990s, he saw some success as a script writer for Swiss television and moved to Ireland in 2000. As an author he became known outside Switzerland only with the award-winning novel Nach Hause schwimmen (2008; trans.: Swimming Home) that he followed up with two more adult novels, namely Islands of the Dying Light (Auf den Inseln des letzten Lichts: 2010) and Über den Winter (2015; trans.: Over the Winter), and the juvenile novel Pampa-Blues (2012). ). Since the end of 2011 Rolf Lappert lives in Switzerland again.

With two old suitcases that belonged to his late father, failed rock musician and recently detoxified drug addict Tobey O’Flynn arrives on the Islands of the Dying Light, i.e. two nameless Philippine islets, to search for his older sister Megan who left their isolated Irish farm still before the father’s funeral. The letters that she sent him over the years through a friend and that he now always carries with him led him the way to the remote island, but Tobey only finds dilapidating buildings, many of them riddled with bullets. He takes care not to be seen by two Filipinos passing his hideaway, and yet, he is knocked down from behind later and comes to with his hands and feet tied. A bald Indian of around sixty, who introduces himself as former doctor Tanvir Raihan, questions him. It takes a while before Tobey realises that he is on another island and unlikely to leave it alive. He soon learns that his sister was there working as veterinarian for the International Primate Research Center although she had never finished her studies. Moreover, he is told that she died swimming in the sea, a fact that he can’t believe, though, knowing her achievements in competitions and that he tries to disprove in a frenzy digging up her grave. Before long, Tobey stumbles across the island’s secrets that he believes to have cost his sister’s life, namely that the research center always was legal façade for illegal experiments on primates which Megan would never have approved of and that funds from abroad are trickling out so the few people still living there have resorted to producing synthetical drugs for jihadist terrorists in the region. Then Tanvir Raihan suggests to flee together from the island in a lifeboat that he found washed ashore…

In Islands of the Dying Light an unconcerned third-person narrator unfolds rather matter-of-factly not just the stories of two very dissimilar siblings, but also their Irish childhood on a run-down farm at the back of beyond from which both fled to the city, be it Dublin or London, and their fates on two no less mysterious than dangerous Philippine islets. While the first part is dedicated to Tobey’s search for Megan that ever again evokes his loving memories of her and of the letters revealing some of her own story, the second part deals first of all with Tobey’s life up to the moment when he sets out on his quest. Only the third part sheds light on Megan’s adventures on the islands. However, neither hers nor Tobey’s is a closed story because there are lots of loose ends. Most characters felt a bit shallow and artificial to me, occasionally even clichéd. The author also packed lots of controversial topics into his novel, too many in my opinion to do more than just scratch at the surface. It goes without saying that I read an original German edition. Its poetical language with some amazing images conveys a very colourful scene.

I must admit that Islands of the Dying Light by Rolf Lappert hasn’t been the best novel that I ever read in my life and in fact, I had some trouble getting into it, but eventually I enjoyed it quite thoroughly because it touches many matters that are important to me. Of course, I would have appreciated a more realistic plot (mind you, a bonobo who behaves like an old English gentleman? Bonobos certainly are intelligent animals, but this drives anthropomorphising really too far) and greater depth “discussing” animal rights, the role of pharmaceutical companies in the development of biological weapons and their antidotes, and Islamism or rather Jihadist terrorism after the model of al-Qaida that unfortunately spreads in the Philippines, too. All things considered, it was a read well worth my time that I gladly recommend to my readers, be it in the original German version or in translation.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes I like books like this; thrillers that deal with political and societal issues. I have not read one set in the Philippines before.


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