ISLE OF PASSION

By Laura Restrepo

Translated from the Spanish by Dolores M. Koch

Ecco. 298 pp. $24.95

Long before "Lost" or "Survivor," literature offered wonderfully imagined answers to the question: What happens to people stranded on a desert isle? Lord of the Flies, Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson all depict the pleasures and the plight of island castaways. And now Colombian journalist Laura Restrepo offers a new take on this scenario in Isle of Passion.

In her new novel, based on real-life events, a small group of Mexican soldiers and their families are sent in 1908 by the Mexican government to defend a remote Pacific atoll named Clipperton in the unlikely event of a French invasion. The group's leader is Capt. Ramon Arnaud, who greets this strange commission with patriotic, and somewhat delusional, fervor. Appointed the island's governor, he brings along his young bride, Alicia, and together they establish a sort of utopia on Clipperton.

The island becomes a microcosm of society as the castaways recreate human social history: They divide property, food, labor. They figure out ways to provide education, medical care and entertainment. So successful is the world they create that when Ramon and Alicia return briefly to their homeland, Alicia declares, "Clipperton is paradise compared with the rest of Mexico." But once back, their peaceful Clipperton society falls victim to a hurricane and an outbreak of scurvy. Almost overnight, resources diminish and violence erupts. A la Lord of the Flies, utopia becomes dystopia, and the stranded survivors must piece together the remains of their broken civilization and hope for rescue.

Sadly, they are awaiting help from a government in ruins. The president who sent Ramon to Clipperton has been deposed by a rebel, who, in turn, is murdered by the head of the army. The Mexican Revolution is in full swing, and the remote atoll is all but forgotten. Restrepo deals only peripherally with the Mexican political upheavals, but the island's collapsing society seems, at times, to mirror the revolution. For at stake on the mainland, as well, is the distribution of property and resources, instigating a cycle of distrust and violence. (Restrepo herself has a real-life understanding of political struggles: In addition to working as a journalist, she was a member of the 1984 Peace Commission that brought the Colombian government and guerrillas to the negotiating table.)

From the midst of Clipperton's ruptured society, however, two romantic stories emerge. Ramon and Alicia, near-strangers when they arrive on the island as newlyweds, soon forge a sensual and loving bond: "In Clipperton they had the time and intimacy necessary to master the art of making love to each other." At the same time, Gustav Schultz, the German representative of the island's guano operation, becomes enamored of Alicia's Mexican servant, Altagracia, and the two begin a secret, passionate affair. But just as utopia collapses into dystopia, the pleasure of these loves soon becomes the pain of abandonment: Ramon dies (I'm not spoiling anything; we learn this by page 11), and Schultz is taken from the island.

While many stories flirt with themes of desertion and isolation, one appeal of the castaway tale is that it dramatizes what it is to feel stranded. Without their lovers, Alicia and Altagracia feel not only emotionally abandoned but, quite literally, marooned, and their despair is all the more affecting for the extreme physicality of it.

The novel's emotional landscape is captured in its title, Isle of Passion, the name that Magellan gave the island in the 16th century. For while "passion" can mean both love and suffering, zeal and torment, it always refers to feeling in the extreme. And Restrepo charts a wide and intense range of human experience in this compelling story of castaways. *

Jennifer Vanderbes is the author of the novel "Easter Island."