“Islands” begins with the young unnamed narrator driving with his family from Sarajevo to the coast, where they take a ship to the island of Mljet, which is part of the neighboring state of Croatia. On the ship, the narrator loses his hat in the wind and, realizing he will never see it again, sobs himself to sleep. The family is greeted on Mljet by Uncle Julius, whose lack of teeth disturbs the narrator. While they walk back to the house, Uncle Julius explains that Mljet used to be overrun by snakes until someone brought a group of young mongooses to the island. Now the mongooses have killed all the snakes and overrun the island themselves.
At the house, Aunt Lyudmila gives the narrator a slobbery kiss. He walks upstairs to a room with a picture of the Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito and an image of the island. Later that night, the narrator wakes up and finds the adults talking and drinking wine outside. He overhears Uncle Julius saying that his grandfather was a beekeeper, and the narrator tells them he is thirsty. Aunt Lyudmila offers him a cup of water, but he refuses because he sees a slug in the water tank.
Uncle Julius tells a story about the time he spent at the Arkhangelsk labor camp in northern Russia, where Stalin began to send young children as punishment for missing school. They were abused and died frequently, but Uncle Julius met one named Vanyka who managed to survive. When Uncle Julius was sent to Siberia to be a gravedigger, he saw Vanyka again, begging to die, and he gave him a piece of bread. Vanyka told him what happened after he got drunk and shouted, “Thank you, Stalin, for my happy childhood!” The guards abused him and moved him to another camp, but Vanyka continued to speak out, steal from the weak, and find men who would protect him in exchange for sex. He began to kill as well and was sent to an island for the worst criminals, from which he fled with two other criminals.
Vanyka killed and ate the two other men, but guards eventually caught him and put him in solitary confinement. He had been trying to kill himself, but the guards would not let him die. The narrator asks what happened to Vanyka, but Uncle Julius simply says, dismissively, he “was killed.” Each morning on Mljet, the narrator wakes up, eats an unappetizing breakfast, walks down a path while frightened of mongooses, and arrives at the gravel beach. His parents allow him to swim, and he sees jellyfish and once a school of what look like “miniature swordfish.” One day, while walking up the path at sunset, the narrator and his parents see a man allow his German shepherd to kill a mongoose. Sometimes Uncle Julius takes the narrator to his apiary, which is a place where bees are raised for their honey. The narrator holds a flaming rag on a stick to repel the bees but runs away out of fear.
One day, Uncle Julius takes the narrator and his parents to the island in the middle of one of Mljet’s lakes. The narrator almost falls out of the boat, but Uncle Julius catches him. Uncle Julius says the island used to be a haven for pirates who took hostages for ransom, then was a German prison, and now houses a hotel that rarely has any tourists. They walk to the restaurant and Uncle Julius tells a story about his student days in Moscow, when he saw the “oldest man in the world.” Uncle Julius explains that the man made him realize that everyone becomes like a child in old age and that there is no point to life because “nothing will change.” The narrator and his parents take a ship to the mainland and the narrator sleeps on the way to Sarajevo. They find their plants withered and the cat starving because their neighbor who was supposed to feed them has died of a heart attack, and the cat looks at the narrator with “irreversible hatred.”
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