by Eve Filée
“A society is defined by what it rejects”, asserted Michel Foucault. This sentence is perfectly illustrated in the case of Spinalonga, a Greek island located east of the Cretan coast of Elounda. This small island of barely eight hectares has become the main scene of Victoria Hislop’s novel entitled “the Island”. The British author’s novel has been a bestseller since its publication in 2005, and two years later has won the Newcomer of the Year award and was shortlisted as the Book of the Year at the 2007 British Book Awards. This paper aims first to analyze Victoria Hislop’s writing style and the way in which she develops her plot, and secondly, the manner in which The Island leads the reader to ruminate questions of the societal organization through subjects of marginality and social exclusion. Drawing on theories of famous philosophers, we will conduct a discussion on the important themes addressed by the British author and compare them with our recent actuality. Indeed, Victoria Hislop’s novel is reminiscent of the pandemic from which we have just emerged. Themes such as epidemics, quarantines, civil, public and media responsibilities have also lived, after COVID-19, at the heart of our daily lives. Let us explore together how this humble book goes beyond simple holiday reading by turning itself into a mirror that reflects society in a perhaps unflattering way.
Victoria Hislop sets her story in a modest and authentic Greek village called Plaka, where Alexis Fielding, a young woman of mixed Greek and English heritage, arrives with the main purpose of shedding light on her family’s past, which her Cretan mother has always kept mysteriously silent. Deeply convinced that the ignorance of her origins is the source of her indecision in love, she encourages Fotini Davaras, an old friend of her mother, to tell her more about her family. Fotini’s story then becomes the main plot of the novel, focusing on the lives of two completely different sisters: Anna, Alexis’s grandmother, and Maria, her aunt, whose wisdom and benevolence contrast with the arrogance of her capricious sister. Both girls are marked at an early age by their mother Eleni’s departure to Spinalonga Island, a leper colony where every Cretan inhabitant is sent to when diagnosed with the incurable disease. As the novel goes on, the reader is introduced to the customs, living conditions, and misadventures of both Plaka and Spinalonga. The latter island evolves throughout the book from being an abandoned giant cemetery to a micro-society even richer than the mainland during World War II.
Victoria Hislop breaks the frame of simple romance novels by bringing in addition a reflective dimension to the concept of social exclusion and marginality.
Through very accessible but elegant writing, Victoria Hislop depicts a splendid portrait of contemporary Crete, of its social structure composed mainly of fishermen, craftsmen, or richer landowners, but also of its rituals such as weddings, religious ceremonies, and various celebrations. This novel is easy to read, although a little simplistic in its construction of embedded stories with a family drama centered around two sisters who are at odds with each other, which classical format can be notably seen in the works of Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood or even Katherine Dunn. Moreover, the constant use of an omniscient narrator induces a certain laziness on the part of the reader, who is left with no room for imagination or personal interpretation. In like manner, Hislop’s direct method of characterizing her heroes enables us to notice the lack of existential changes that they present. Characters remain true to their predetermined, flat personalities and do not evolve at all throughout the book. However, as Louise France points out in The Guardian, being able to create a family-focused knowable community with so many characters for a first novel requires a “brave author” (France). And as such, Victoria Hislop breaks the frame of simple romance novels by bringing in addition a reflective dimension to the concept of social exclusion and marginality, especially when induced by the state or institutions (Godrie et al.). Indeed, the British author ingeniously depicts how the Greek government of the twentieth century, by sending all the lepers of Crete to Spinalonga Island, instituted ostracising discrimination between the “healthy” Greek citizens and the sick. Through the examples of Eleni’s and later Maria’s exile, the novel denounces this form of social exclusion as the main cause of the Cretan population’s ignorance and misunderstanding of the disease, which has soon become associated with many prejudices, hatred, and fear. Eventually, the collective consciousness transformed the leper colony of Spinalonga into a penitentiary where the prisoners “were not criminals, but that was something the people of Plaka conveniently forgot” (Hislop 132).
Disinformation and ignorance are finally the main scourges to be fought.
Ultimately, The Island goes beyond being a “beach book,” as Louise France calls it (France), by introducing moral meditations in the reader’s mind. Indeed, one can read among Hislop’s lines the perfect illustration of the thought of many philosophers who worked on social exclusion issues. Indeed, through her depiction of the lepers’ treatment and exile, the author suggests that marginality begins with a lack of understanding of whom Jean-Paul Sartre calls “the other”, i.e. a different being, here represented by the lepers. The hatred and fear of lepers is clearly linked with the lack of understanding towards the disease that the inhabitants of Spinalonga suffer from. The novel shows how this ignorance surrounding leprosy is ultimately the result of a total educational failure in Greece. Indeed, as Jacques Delors explains in the UNESCO report that he reviewed in 1996, “[t]he main parties contributing to the success of educational reforms are, first of all, the local community, including parents, school heads and teachers; secondly, the public authorities; and thirdly, the international community” (Delors et al. 27). Victoria Hislop proves the failure of education by portraying all three cases in her book. The lack of support from the local community is epitomized by the sudden and total interruption of communication between little Dimitri and his parents after him being sent to the island; the disinterest of the public authorities is embodied in Papadimitriou, Spinalonga’s mayor, and in his struggle with the Greek government to obtain even the most basic necessities; and with the Second World War serving as the novel’s contextual decor, international community surely fails as well. In that manner, Victoria Hislop undeniably agrees with Delors’ theory of education being “the necessary utopia,” and concurs with Tomasz Szkudlarek and Piotr Zamojski’s discourse that “ignorance […] seems to be […] the criterion of social exclusion” (Szkudlarek et al.). The following extract outlines perfectly the Cretan population’s attitude towards their neighbours:
Most people on the mainland imagined that all lepers were as ravaged by the disease as these extreme cases and the very thought of their proximity repulsed them. They feared for themselves and for their children and had no doubt that the bacillus that had infected the people on this island could be airborne into their own homes. Perhaps the disease was spreading from the island to the mainland. One minute they feared the idea that they too might end up on Spinalonga; the next they seethed with envy at the idea that the colonists might be living more comfortable lives than they were themselves. (Hislop 273)
Hislop’s criticism of ignorance is surely why the novel attaches so much importance to the role of the press. Indeed, a clear emphasis is put on the lepers’ struggle to have “copies of Crete’s weekly newspaper [make] their way to the island” (Hislop 101) and they even manage to undertake “the creation of a newspaper to keep the population informed:” The Star of Spinalonga (Hislop 106). This willingness to be heard and to stay informed is in complete contrast to the attitude of the inhabitants of Crete who are complacent in their ignorance and maintain their “bigoted, narrow views” (Hislop 132). Disinformation and ignorance are finally the main scourges to be fought.
Two typical situations are leprosy as a disease of rejection, and the plague as a disease of control. In this ladder of diseases, we could place COVID as the last evolution.
On a whole other level, The Island and its plot around a pandemic and forced quarantines is curiously reminiscent of the recent actuality that the world faced with the coronavirus pandemic. However, can we compare the battle against leprosy fought by twentieth-century Greece to the pandemic that we have recently experienced: the coronavirus? The astute reader of The Island will quickly make the connection between the situations described by Victoria Hislop and our daily life in 2019 and 2020: the isolation of the infected, the overcrowding of healthcare facilities (Abelson), the recurrent attacks on members of the community who are in frequent contact with victims of the disease (“Discriminés, agressés”), the ignorance of the population leading to a sickly fear of being contaminated, like the COVID-19 anxiety syndrome construct (Alberty et al.), the overload of work for health care staff (Zhang et al.)… Despite all of those similarities in the handling of COVID-19 and leprosy, those diseases cannot be presented as analogous. In fact, they would stand at quite different levels on the scale of diseases theorized by Foucault. This great philosopher has spent a lot of his research focusing on forced isolation, mainly in the context of a carceral environment. His work on quarantine also includes reflections on leprosy as being a disease that divides, that creates outcasts, which he opposes to the plague, a disease that, according to him, brings unity by forcing governmental control and hierarchy (Foucault 174). It is interesting to note that leprosy described in Victoria Hislop’s book offers a median point to this theory. The Island no longer refers to medieval leprosy where the infected are treated as “impure” and are crossed out of official registers, as the forgotten of society. Here, the patients of Spinalonga manage to build a real community regularly supplied with essential goods; they are visited by doctors whose requests are listened to by the government; they build a valuable cultural life and even manage to reach a higher level of wealth than in the mainland. This evolution in the treatment of sick citizens demonstrates the passage of humanity, according to Foucault’s philosophy, to another mode of thought which he calls “biopolitics” (Bousquet). This biopolitics is explained by the arrival of modernity overshadowing the previous theocentrism. This theory shows a renewed interest in life itself, which is now considered to be protected and improved at all costs. This idolization of life obviously leads to the rejection of the sick for the sake of the healthy population, but it also implies not forgetting the sick. Spinalonga is thus in the middle of Foucault’s bipolar interpretation of diseases: his two typical situations are leprosy as a disease of rejection, and the plague as a disease of control. In this ladder of diseases, we could place COVID as the last evolution: a disease that has forced the government to apply full powers in many countries, in order to reassert their control over the population and to take care of the contaminated population through the means of isolation. Modern society, in its desire to protect life, i.e. even the lives of the marginalized and sick, is reflected in the example of Greece’s handling of the corona crisis. The country reacted promptly to the pandemics in order to protect the population the best. It became “the country behind some of the most proactively restrictive measures in Europe” and, as a result, one of the territories least affected by the pandemic (Stevis-Gridneff). The New York Times Magazine even claims that Greece had recorded almost 19 times fewer cases than a country like Belgium (Stevis-Gridneff). It is true that Greece, like most civilized countries affected by the coronavirus, had to implement quarantine measures during disease peaks. However, these isolation practices in case of pandemics are nowadays much more regulated than in the last century and are now “subject to a high degree of legal scrutiny” (Bostick et al. 4). It is thus clear that, although similar when reading the novel, these two pandemic cases are quite different in their treatment and in their consequences.
All things considered, The Island by Victoria Hislop is a modest and accessible book that is made easy to read by its classical structure and very Manichaean characters. While this simplicity of style gives the book a less sophisticated tone, it also allows the reader to engage with the important themes presented in the book. The British author draws light on the importance of inclusion and tolerance, on government and media involvement in social issues, and she insists on the need for education of the masses. By relating these issues of social exclusion to contemporary philosophies and current events, it is clear that Victoria Hislop not only gives us a book to put in our suitcases on holiday but also creates a novel that has gained its place on our desks to remind us of its moral.
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