Uncle Julius scares and traumatizes his nine-year-old nephew in a variety of ways during the short scenes that make up Hemon’s story, “Islands.” His toothless and smelly body, his description of the snakes and mongooses on Mljet, his characterization of the death of his grandfather, his comments about the former pirate island now sporting a hotel, and his story about the oldest man in the world during which he tells his nephew, “You might as well stop living now,” are all frightening for a nine-year-old boy. Perhaps the aspect of the visit that has the greatest impact on the narrator, however, is Uncle Julius’s story about Vanyka, the boy whose life is destroyed by the horrific series of circumstances to which he is subjected in the northern Russia.
In fact, “Islands” is balanced between the story of the nine-year-old protagonist on a trip to the Croatian island of Mljet to visit his Uncle Julius, and the story of the boy Vanyka and his experience with the brutal Soviet penal system of the 1940s. These stories describe vastly different circumstances in vastly different societies; in fact, they are like individual islands that do not seem to connect. Like the other islands in Hemon’s story, however—Mljet, the pirate’s island within Mljet, the prison island to which Vanyka is sent, and the short scenes of island memories themselves—these apparently distinct stories are actually related quite closely. Indeed, one of the central points of interest in “Islands” is how the two glimpses of childhood contrast, and what this says about the societies in which the boys were raised. Uncle Julius, who seems to want to make an impression on his nephew, tells the story of Vanyka for his benefit, saying ominously that “he should know” the story.
The fact that he asks how old the narrator is immediately before doing so suggests that Uncle Julius is imparting a cautionary tale in which Vanyka is meant to serve as a double for the narrator. Since they are nearly the same age, Uncle Julius implies, his nephew should learn something from Vanyka’s experience. The essence of this lesson seems to be that the narrator must lose his innocence and recognize the horrible realities of the world. For his part, the narrator clearly identifies with Vanyka and shows interest in his fate. Since no one else dares say anything when Uncle Julius falls silent, it is a sign of great curiosity that the narrator brings himself to ask, “So what happened to him?”
Although the narrator does not mention Vankya for the rest of the story, the unfortunate prisoner’s horror story seems to linger on in the narrator’s fearful and confused thoughts. For example, Vanyka’s story seems related to the narrator’s drama of self-perception. It is immediately after Vanyka’s story that the narrator wakes up without knowing “where [he] was or who [he] was.” Getting up “out of [his] nonbeing,” the narrator is quite self-conscious, and his identity confusion continues throughout the story. Being cold is the only thing that seems to give him some sense of himself; when he dives into the freezing water he feels “present in [his] own body,” and the coolness of the path to the house makes him “conscious of how hot [his] shoulders felt.” Since the only other extreme cold in the story is that of Arkhangelsk and Siberia, Hemon may be suggesting that Vanyka’s story also provides the narrator with a sense of his identity.
Perhaps, more importantly, however, the narrator identifies with Vanyka and is influenced by his story because both boys undergo a loss of innocence. Vanyka attracted the attention of Uncle Julius because he was able to survive the brutal environment of the camp, but, more importantly, because he shouted out ironically, “Thank you, Stalin, for my happy childhood!” Circumstances have tortured Vanyka and robbed him of his joy and his health, but the most striking thing is that it all happened to him when he was less than fifteen years old, simply because he missed several days of school. Before he went to the camp Vanyka was at the stage of his life that Uncle Julius describes as “knowing nothing, remembering nothing,” and within a short period of time he decided that he wanted to die because his life was worse than death.
The narrator is not injured, tortured or imprisoned, but he does experience a loss of innocence. Hemon, who throughout the story is interested in themes of birth, aging, and losing one’s childhood, is careful to emphasize in the first sentence the “yolky” sun (an image signifying birth and innocence) and the naive, happy childishness of the narrator. Continually asking if they are there yet during the journey, the narrator innocently wears his straw hat painted with the seven dwarves until the wind suddenly snatches it from his head and he realizes he “would never, ever see it again.” Although this could be written off as a funny and seemingly harmless detail, it makes the narrator sob himself to sleep and foreshadows the more shocking losses that follow.
Uncle Julius’s intimidating presence wears down his nephew’s innocence at every turn. The narrator is frightened or troubled by snakes, mongooses, slugs, Stalin, the futility of life, the lack of a sense of self, undergoing a process of sharp maturation and disillusionment. Instead of the bright yellow, yolky sun, the narrator is confronted with “smoldering soggy eggs” like a fried, melted childhood. This process climaxes when Uncle Julius tells him there is no point in living because “nothing will change,” and when his starving cat in Sarajevo looks at him with “irreversible hatred.” Here at the end of the story, the narrator seems to have aged years.
Vanyka’s childhood trauma brings out the narrator’s own loss of innocence, instead of minimizing it or overshadowing it, mainly because his story calls attention to the brutal ways in which authority and society force children to grow up. In fact, one of the most crucial aspects of the narrator’s maturation process is clear only when, as in Vanyka’s story, the political context is made explicit. This is the way that communism, the government, and society at large play a key role in a child’s loss of innocence. Vanyka’s loss of childhood is so explicitly related to Stalin and the Soviet labor camps that his experience causes the reader to consider whether the narrator’s maturation process may also be affected by Yugoslav communist society.
Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that Hemon is, in fact, commenting on Marshal Tito’s communist government and its treatment of Yugoslavian youth. The first clear signal of this is the fact that, in scene 1, the narrator sings communist songs for the entire journey to Mljet about “mournful mothers looking through graves for their dead sons.” Communism is thus initially associated with the “yolky” sun and the youthful innocence of the narrator before he begins to experience doubt and fear. Hemon is then careful to emphasize that there is a picture of Tito in the narrator’s bedroom “smiling, black-and-white,” as well as one in the abandoned island hotel. After Vanyka’s story, however, the narrator begins to be disillusioned with life and human nature, particularly with communism and other systems of power and authority. It begins to be clear, for example, that the mongooses are similar to the communists who took over Russia in the sense that they have merely replaced one exploitative system (the Czarist reign signified by snakes) with another.
This seems to reinforce Uncle Julius’s comment that vermin follow “one pest after another, like revolutions,” implying that the communist revolutions in Russia were simply methods of rearranging systems of power and oppression. The German shepherd that kills the mongoose underscores this point by signifying yet another disillusioning shift of power. Interestingly, the dog’s “pink-and-brown gums” and “saliva” are sharply reminiscent of Uncle Julius’s toothless pink, stained gums and his slobbery kiss. By the end of the story, the narrator himself (having matured and lost his innocence) is the authority figure that, though unwittingly, tortures and starves his cat so that it responds with “irreversible hatred.” Forms of authority and kinds of oppression combine, therefore, until the narrator seems to concede Uncle Julius’s point that “Life is nothing if not a succession of evils” perpetrated by those in power. Although the narrator does not necessarily come to believe wholeheartedly in this conclusion, it is clear that it has made a lasting impression on him. He even comes to a point where he must decide whether Uncle Julius is right that he “might as well stop living now” and, like Vanyka, give up on anything except the hope of death. Hemon is able to articulate the great trauma of this experience only by doubling the narrator with Vanyka. It is through the juxtaposition of their stories that Hemon is able to communicate the great tragedy of a young boy’s loss of innocence.
Scott Trudell, 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