Partly because it is the first story in an autobiographical collection of fiction from the perspective of a Bosnian immigrant to the United States, there is the sense that “Islands” is a journey into childhood memory from the standpoint of an adult. The story’s short scenes are like islands of memory that combine to form an array of impressions about the family trip to Mljet. They contain specific observations and piece together the overall impression or significance of the trip. For example, with the frame of reference of a little boy, the narrator describes “a Popsicle-yellow lizard, as big as a new pencil, on the stone wall behind Uncle Julius’s back,” with its “unblinking marble eye.” Hemon seems to be commenting, therefore, on the nature of memory and the process of extracting significance from past experience. He implies that the memory selects certain details to retain vividly, and these chosen parts act as beacons or signposts to what was significant or moving about an experience. These memories combine in complex and subtle ways; the narrator may remember the German shepherd’s gums so vividly, for example, because they remind him of Uncle Julius’s toothless gums, and he may remember his cat’s “irreversible hatred” in such stark terms because he may feel that he has been neglected himself. Hemon implies that the memory categorizes and stores what is important to it in this sort of coded manner, particularly childhood memories when revisited or re-envisioned in adulthood.
One of the key themes of “Islands” is the significance of the events of the story to the narrator’s later life, particularly the trauma he feels during the vacation. Although he experiences a number of potentially traumatizing events, such as when he loses his hat or sees a German shepherd kill a mongoose, the narrator is most significantly troubled by the stories and general persona of his Uncle Julius. Uncle Julius is not necessarily a malicious man, but he does seem to think it is a good idea for the narrator to hear some bone-chilling stories, as evidenced when he says “he should know” in reference to the story about Vanyka. If, as is likely, “Islands” is told from the point of view of an adult looking back on his childhood, these tales would have stayed in the narrator’s memory for a long time and hold significance for him. Because they are filled with such a threatening vision of the world, however, they are emotionally disturbing and appear to become longstanding childhood trauma.
The narrator of Hemon’s story frequently talks about his sense of himself, usually in physical terms such as his awareness of his own body. When he is swimming, for example, the narrator notes that “the shock of coldness would make me feel present in my own body,” and when he is walking along the path to Uncle Julius’s house he notes that “the sudden coolness made me conscious of how hot my shoulders felt.” Perhaps the most important of these moments comes after Uncle Julius tells the story of Vanyka. After sleeping, the narrator wakes up “and didn’t know where I was or who I was” and then gets up “out of my nonbeing.” Although all of these moments are understandable and even common, they imply that the narrator is experiencing a period of self-consciousness, questioning his identity and his place in the world.
“Islands,” a story about a child’s relationship with adult family members, includes a lengthy passage about the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. In this way, the story takes on the theme of power and influence over others. Uncle Julius seems to influence the narrator, and this resonates, in certain ways, with his horrific description of power and authority during Stalin’s regime. It is clear that the narrator identifies with Vanyka, although their situations contrast sharply; he attempts to imagine what it would be like to have one’s childhood and happiness taken away by a brutal and tyrannical system of authority. Interestingly, the narrator seems to have little tension or confrontation with his own parents (although they do have strict rules about swimming, for example), so Uncle Julius seems to inspire him to think about authority in a new way. Hemon is careful to bring up the theme of authority at the final moment of the story, in which the narrator views what he considers the “irreversible hatred” of a cat that has been neglected and (though accidentally) tortured by those who hold power over it.
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