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The Slippery Power of Cold Skin

I read a pretty broad range of books, which can sometimes result in a broad range of consequences. Chief among these consequences: I’m not always able to find someone else who’s read the book, which makes discussing it rather difficult. That’s why I’m willing to wait while you locate and read a copy of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Cold Skin. Go ahead, it’s not a long book, and I’m pretty patient.

Now that we’ve all read it, I can tell you that I came across this book through a friend, who recommended it not only because we share an affinity for creepy things, but also because lighthouses are obviously destined to be some sort of leitmotif in my life (or possibly just last week). It’s got a little bit of everything: science fiction! shipwrecks! existential angst! sex! weird love triangles! a complicated relationship with the Golden Bough! monsters! etc.! Seriously, this book is dense. And one of its most difficult themes is the gender dynamics that develop out of a sexual relationship that the narrator initiates with a female sea monster.

Opened book with map in the background.This is a story with few characters. There’s the narrator, who, as the story begins, has just landed on a tiny, nearly-deserted island in the Antarctic for a one-year appointment tracking the wind patterns; there’s the German who, ostensibly, operates the island’s small lighthouse; and there’s this female sea monster. There are a few others who make appearances, but as far as the principles go, this is it. To complicate things, the sea monster’s presence throughout the story is entirely dependent on what could be considered the narrator’s whim– although she’s a central, and extremely essential character, she really only exists through him. She doesn’t exist until he takes notice of her, and when he isn’t thinking about her, it’s as though she disappears entirely. At times the narrator notices signs that she has been in a certain place, but for the most part she drifts in and out of the story in a hazy way that ultimately underscores the degree to which the narrator is tuned in to the environment he inhabits.

Both the narrator and the lighthouse keeper, Gruner, use the sea monster to satisfy their carnal desires, and though the narrator initially despises both her and himself after their coupling, he gradually grows to accept it as part of his life on the island. He beats her and talks at her with disdain one minute, and caresses her and coos over her the next. He finds her entirely indispensable, and sees himself as a kind of savior who is enabling her to escape from the cruel relationship she’s been forced into by Gruner.

Throughout everything, she remains almost entirely indifferent to both men. On occasion, she shows signs of fearing them both, and relief at no longer having to deal with Gruner when she’s with the narrator. But more than anything, she’s a blank canvas upon which both men can project their desires, ideals, and fantasies (sexual, violent, and otherwise). As I said above, she’s essential to the story, but only in so much as she allows the narrator to work through internal conflict and play out the perverse power struggle he enters into with Gruner. She’s the apex of the two men’s triangulated desire, but she is completely void with neither desires nor animus. Shells are a recurring theme in the book, and the sea monster may be the best example of one: in spite of her attractive exterior, she’s empty on the inside.

She’s simultaneously the most and least powerful character in Cold Skin– the novel even derives its title from the narrator’s touching her– and whether she’s in a position of dominance or inferiority depends entirely on the book’s male characters. To what degree, then, is it possible to say that any of her actions or any of the power she yields are her own?

In a book as full of symbolism and significance as Cold Skin, it would be almost impossible in a space as small as this to draw any conclusions about what sort of thoughts and feelings the female sea monster and her connection to the male characters is meant to provoke. However I do think we can raise questions about the power that results from being an object of desire; how this power differs from the kind traditionally held by a non-desired object; or whether this power, in its dependence upon the participation of the desiring character, is a valid form of power at all.

By Emilie

Runner, yogini, knitter, Manhattanite in spite of myself. Also blogging at http://www.icametorun.com.

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