A witty and nostalgic portrait of a small Adriatic island, told by Chilean novelist Skármeta (The Composition, 2000, etc.) with a good feel for the way past tragedies haunt future events.
The fictitious island of Gema—nestled in the Adriatic Sea a few miles off the former Yugoslavian coast in what was a 19th-century wine-producing region—was prosperous in a very modest way. Its one claim to fame occurred just before 1900, when it boasted the finest department store (“The European”) between Paris and Constantinople. The European was built by Stamos Marikanis, a local merchant who had made a fortune in trade and wanted to put Gema on the map. Having built it, Stamos wanted only one thing more to achieve his final happiness: the hand of Marta Matarasso. Stamos was by far the most successful man on the island, so Marta accepted his proposal without a second thought—to her eventual regret. For it seems that Stamos was a great deal, er, bigger than most men—so much so, in fact, that Marta died of bliss on her wedding night. Bereft and brokenhearted, Stamos left Gema and shut down the European, which slowly decayed over the next 20 years. In 1914, however, a rich German poet named Jeronimo Frank settled on the island and fell in love with a local girl named Alia Emar. The scion of a great banking family, Jeronimo decides to reopen the European and see if he can make a go of life as a merchant. The islanders, who have suffered terrible harvests after a fungus has attacked most of their vineyards, are delighted at the prospect of new investment from abroad. But they worry that a tragedy similar to Marta’s may befall Alia. Can history repeat itself for the better? At the very worst, it’s not a bad way to go.
Slight but savory.