A Review of Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez Pinol
The new weather official arrives at his Antarctic island outpost only to find that the man he should be replacing is nowhere to be found. His only company is the Austrian lighthouse-keeper, who seems to have gone insane. What has happened? When night falls upon the island, the answer becomes horribly clear.
Cold Skin begins in the mode of a particularly well written gothic fantasy or “weird tale”—but instead of dedicating the slim novel to the slow unveiling of an indescribable horror/unnamable evil/unpronounceable eldritch fiend, Piñol gives us most of the answers we think we want within the first thirty pages, then steers us into deeper waters. The ultimate destination is an uncharted fictional territory somewhere between H. P. Lovecraft and J. M. Coetzee.
Immediately, the desolation of the setting warns us that we’re in for a bit of allegory. Two men, one island, no escape… it’s the classic laboratory of fiction. All the details that would locate and limit the action have been pared away: the island itself is unnamed, we don’t know what year it is, and our anonymous narrator, the weather official, is weirdly blank. An Everyman cipher, he’s literally and figuratively a man without a country—figuratively, in that he feels betrayed by the politics of the nation he’s left behind; literally, in that he never tells us where he’s from. We’re never even told what language he’s speaking to the Austrian in the lighthouse, except that it probably isn’t German (or Catalan, for that matter, the Iberian tongue the novel was actually written in).
The subtext, as it plays out, does seem a little simplistic at first. In addition to the cold-blooded (and -skinned) alien enemy that crawls onto the beach that first night, the narrator must contend with the second, internal threat of his paranoid neighbor, whose perversity deepens abysmally as the novel unfolds. The Serlingian irony of their situation will seem familiar to any reader who owns a TV set (“Huh! It makes ya wonder who the real monsters are!”), but the neat lesson we find ourselves set up for—about Violence and Colonialism and so forth—is complicated and universalized by a much more affecting story, about lowercase-i idealism, so that even if the plot arrives at a conclusion we might have predicted, it has become strange enough in the telling that its emotional impact is undiminished.
More important than all of this, Cold Skin is enjoyable right on the surface. In the description of each moment, the details are idiosyncratic enough for the writing to be really comic or disturbing when the story calls for it. Even after the first couple of chapters, when the “horror” and “mystery” plots slack off a bit, the “survival” plot is enough to sustain the novel’s forward motion. But I’m making Cold Skin sound far more straightforward than it really is—there’s plenty of action and suspense, but the genre is just a little distorted, as in one of those French “crime” films in which the crooks or the detectives or whoever just seem to sit around smoking instead of shooting at each other.
The payoff in this novel is the same as it is in those movies: we are actually allowed to think about these characters, deeply enough that when one of them commits an act of violence, it means something to us. And as our narrator’s sanity and humanity begin to erode under the island’s impossible conditions, we register his terrible progress with the low, profound chill of self-recognition.