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In Salt Picnic, all is not idyllic on the Spanish island of Ibiza.
Victoria University Press
By JESSIE NEILSON
It is the 1950s in Ibiza, Spain. Young Iola has left Britain for the first time, intent on finding out what sights and animation this island in the Mediterranean has to offer. She is carefree and without ties, and soon moves into La Casa de las Liebres, the House of the Hares, to experience local life while considering her plan. Sisters Magdalena and Concepcion run the lodge, aided by young Vicente, with his "unflinching goat-gaze", and the sad figure of prematurely-aged Antonio.
Iola hopes for a career in writing, and with no schedule beckoning she scrawls notes and diary entries upon scattered chocolate wrappers. Her entries reflect her ambiguity towards her present-day experiences, where she will walk along the wild coasts, on a whim, or dawdle along the windy alleyways of the township, watching clusters of fishermen’s children play or old men idle away the time.
It all seems idyllic but despite her languidness Iola tunes in straightaway to the undercurrents of a menacing history which seems to lurk within the frazzled nerves of the people. As she soon discovers, Ibiza has not been untouched by the recent European turmoil, where the claws of fascism have stretched to this little island. The sisters often confer privately, switching to a language the very sounds of which are impenetrable and to her the "forbidden language". She wonders upon these two women’s real identities; likewise Antonio, who carries out his menial tasks with a demeanour unceasingly one of the deepest shame.
There are the unspoken questions of who is innocent, what is the guilt, where does complicity begin and end, and who actually are these people? All around is the "past embalmed"; individuals either caught within time’s sway or the rare one dangling beyond. There are other outsiders, too. A posturing Leica camera-swinging American, fancying himself straight out of Roman Holiday, sidles up to Iola and ingratiates himself, leading to complication and bewilderment.
There is the doctor, arriving late in the piece, clear and straightforward; a good conversationalist in a world, which for Iola, is readily blurring. And there is the ongoing subterfuge all around: people huddled in talk in a foreign tongue, missing suitcases, beatings, surveillance and photography. Wisening up, she seeks answers; some voice of certainty.
Patrick Evans lectured in New Zealand literature at the University of Canterbury from 1970 to 2016. He has written plays and novels and has a particular, and often vocal, interest in Janet Frame. He holds that this work should read as a trilogy alongside two of his most recent novels, Gifted (2010) and The Back of his Head (2015). Salt Picnic should be considered the second in the sequence, and he claims that, unlike the other two, this one does not pose a reimagining of Frame herself. Rather, the character of this 1950s Iola should be considered merely as one following a similar trajectory.
Evans digs up engrossing instances of history, and his plot, and the characters within, become increasingly complex. Young Iola, the centrepiece around whom currents of history and politics swirl, is not entirely convincing though. The male voice remains prominent even as it tries to stay out of the story. Iola does not come across as believably three-dimensional, and some of her motivations and emotional states seem far-fetched. This is hard to get past, but it is Evans’ gradual tightening on the mysteries and delving into the fascinating history surrounding Ibiza for which Salt Picnic should be approached and appreciated.
- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.