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Esquire
Wednesday, November 30th, 2005


 

Cold Skin

by Alber Sanchez Pinol

Surreal World

A review by Anna Godbersen

Like a lot of novels that get labeled existential, Albert Sánchez Piñol's Cold Skin begins with a bleak landscape, a quasi-self-imposed exile, and bare-bones narration. The unnamed narrator arrives on a small Antarctic island, apparently on the run from the darkness of Europe after World War I, to fulfill a job "as monotonous as it was insignificant." He is the island's weather official; luckily, he brought books. But our narrator's plans to catch up on his reading and soul-searching go awry when he realizes his island is inhabited by amphibious, man-eating monsters. He is forced to take up with his only neighbor, the lighthouse keeper, a brutish and pathologically unfriendly man named Gruner. Gruner has figured out how to fight the monsters (by night, and with superior firepower), and he has also managed to domesticate one of them. His monster is loyal and good at housework (it is a she, of course), and is also (our narrator quickly realizes) kind of hot. Hers is the cold skin of the title; she is Gruner's lover first, and then the narrator's. For a while it seems that some sort of humanist understanding can be reached with the creatures, but this is, after all, the kind of book in which the phrases "devastating failure" and "utter darkness" appear in the same sentence.

Cold Skin reads like a mash of genres, from sci fi to political fable, and would seem to have everything to please the teenaged boy (Guns! Fatalism! Sex with fantastical creatures!). But for every philosophical observation on human nature, there is some absurdity (sample dialogue: "I care not a whit as to what is happening on this devilish island"), and all the drama, intelligence and fun that seems to be at Sánchez Piñol's fingertips gets lost in the jerky, ludicrous telling.


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