The narrator’s father makes no individual appearances in the story but is grouped together with his mother. They are not neglectful parents, which is clear from the narrator’s description of how specific they are in their rules about when and for how long he can swim, but their son tends not to notice them. He describes them as “sprightly,” or lively and animated, although it is difficult to tell whether they are truly enjoying the trip.
The narrator encounters a number of older German tourists on his trip to Mljet, who tend to be somewhat oblivious. They are foreign sightseers who see this Slavic island region as outsiders, with apparently no real comprehension. They are sunburned, take numerous pictures, and one of them vomits over the side of the ship.
A Mljet native who deeply affects the narrator, Uncle Julius is a mysterious and somewhat disturbing old man. The story of his life is never spelled out, but the reader is able to piece together some key details of his years in Russia based on the stories he tells. He is from the Ukraine, which was a part of the former U.S.S.R., and he spent his student days in Moscow, where he studied biology. It is unclear how or why he became a prisoner in Stalin’s labor camps, but by 1943 he was in the camp at Arkangelsk, Russia, where he met Vanyka for the first time. After this, Uncle Julius was transferred to different camps (for how long or how many he is unsure), but he ended up as a gravedigger in Siberia. Somehow he made his way to Mljet, where he is married to Aunt Lyudmila and keeps bees in the tradition of his Ukrainian family. With his soft lips “like slugs,” his stink of “rot and decay,” his bulging eyes, his “peculiar, tranquil smile,” and his stained gums missing their teeth, Uncle Julius cuts a rather fearsome figure to a young boy. The most frightening aspects of his character, however, are his horrific stories, which he says the narrator “should know.” Someone, likely Aunt Lyudmila, says ominously that the narrator “won’t be able to sleep ever again” if he hears Uncle Julius’s stories, and the last story in which Uncle Julius tells the narrator “You might as well stop living now, my son,” is particularly disturbing. In fact, Hemon seems to emphasize that the main subject of “Islands” is the impression that Uncle Julius makes on the young narrator, implying that it affected him for many years afterwards.
Aunt Lyudmila is Uncle Julius’s wife. The narrator says her face is like “a loaf of bread with a small tubby potato in the middle” and that her calves, ankles, and bare feet are bruised, swollen, and warped. This must be because she has been subject to very hard work throughout her life, with the implication that she is a tough and stolid woman. It is unclear how or when she met Uncle Julius. The narrator does not seem to like her because of the slobbery kiss she gives him and her failure to notice or object to the slug in the water tank.
The narrator’s mother has slightly more presence in the narrative than does his father. She is the one who tends to speak to the narrator and take care of him, and he suggests that he is close to her early in the story when he hides his face in her skirt. Nevertheless, she is grouped with her husband as a rather abstract authority figure to whom the narrator generally pays little attention.
A sensitive and perceptive nine-year-old boy who remains unnamed is the narrator and protagonist of Hemon’s story. As he begins his island voyage, he wears a round straw hat painted with the seven dwarves from Snow White , but it blows away in the wind. He enjoys swimming and playing in the sand, but he is unenthusiastic about the trip to Mljet. A generally obedient boy, he is impressionable and curious. The main subject of the story is the narrator’s experience as he listens to Uncle Julius’s stories and his perceptions of his uncle’s general attitude towards him. Uncle Julius is not necessarily trying to scare or traumatize the narrator, but he does seem to be imparting some type of lesson. Because Hemon’s collection The Question of Bruno is autobiographical, from the perspective of an older Bosnian man living in the United States, and because the story is organized in brief scenes like islands of memory, there is the sense that the narrator is an adult thinking back to his childhood. However, the narrative perspective is that of an observant child who is still forming his opinion about the world. He seems unsure quite how all of the pieces of the story fit together, but he seems to recognize that they are significant to his youth and development. This is perhaps why he speaks about waking up without knowing “where I was or who I was” and feeling “present in my own body” when he dives into the sea; he is forming an understanding of his place in his family and society.
As brutal or more brutal than Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) was the ruthless communist dictator who headed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) between 1924 and 1953. Stalin attempted to industrialize the Soviet Union by destroying millions whom he thought stood in his way: farmers, intellectuals, religious people, political dissenters, and those who were undesirables for whatever reason. Under his command, more than 10 million people perished in labor camps that dotted Siberia.
Marshal Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980) was the communist president of the former Yugoslavia (a country consisting of six republics that was created in 1945) from 1953 until his death in 1980. A war hero and longtime Communist Party member, he unified the country imitating Stalin’s government and policies but then broke away from the international Communist Party after a rift with Stalin.
The subject of Uncle Julius’s story about the time he spent in Soviet labor camps, Vanyka is a resourceful and desperate blonde boy with blue eyes whose life is destroyed by Stalin’s regime. He is only twelve when he is sent to Arkhangelsk camp either because he was “repeatedly late for school or missed several days with no excuse.” Unlike most of the other children at the camp, he manages to survive by “lending himself” which means he offers himself sexually to criminals, as well as by stealing food and bribing guards. Because of Vanyka’s habit of speaking his mind, the guards beat him mercilessly and abuse him. He begins to kill and do “bad, bad things.” He learns how to survive, but he continues to speak out so the authorities send him to a sort of pirates’ island on which criminals are allowed to rob and kill each other. Vanyka attempts to escape, killing and eating three people in the process, but guards catch him and put him in solitary confinement, torturing him. He tries to kill himself and, when Uncle Julius meets him for the second time, all he wants is to die, but the guards keep him alive so he suffers more. The narrator is deeply affected by Vanyka’s story and asks what happened to him, but Uncle Julius simply says dismissively that he was killed, frightening his nephew even more.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Aleksandar Hemon, Published by Gale Group, 2010