Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fantastic Island

Spanish author Javier Marias recently celebrated his tenth year as ruling monarch of The Kingdom of Redonda. Redonda is a tiny uninhabited island between the islands of Nevis and Montserrat, in the West Indies.

The history of this island is anything but straightforward. On his second transatlantic journey in 1493, Christopher Columbus became the first European to lay claim to an island he named Isla Santa Maria la Redonda, or ‘St. Mary’s Round Island.' Today, it is still known as Redonda.

Legend has it that in 1865 the writer and banker Matthew Dowdy Shiell proclaimed himself to be the rightful "King" of the island of Redonda upon the birth of his first son, Matthew Phipps Shiell. The elder Shiell felt he could legitimately do this, because no country had officially claimed the islet as territory. Sheill senior also is said to have requested the title of King from Queen Victoria, and she granted it to him as long as there was no revolt against colonial power.

The younger Shiell, who became a British MP and a writer of fantasy fiction, inherited the island. Upon his death he gave rule over the island, and the rights of his work, to the poet John Gawsworth. Gawsworth in turn bestowed the title, and the rights to his and Shiell's work, to Jon Wynne-Tyson.

Wynne-Tyson resigned his title in 1997, when he decided to name Javier Marías as his successor (and bearer of the rights of the work of both Shiel and Gawsworth). Marias had written about Gawsworth in his breakthrough novel Todas las almas (All Souls in English,) and Wynne-Tyson rewarded his positive portrayal with the Royal Title.

King Xavier I of Redonda, as he now calls himself, has used his title to re-invent this rock in the Caribbean Sea as a literary and artistic paradise. He has conferred regal titles on friends, mostly writers and film makers. Francis Ford Coppola is Duke of Megalópolis; Alice Munro is Duchess of Ontario; J. M. Coetzee is Duke of Deshonra; Pedro Almodóvar is Duke of Trémula; AS Byatt is Duchess of Morpho Convexo; William Boyd is the Duke of Brazzaville; Frank Gehry is Duke of Nervión and has designed the royal palace, “a building for everyone in multiple parts” that does not as yet exist.

Additionally, King Xavier has also set up a Redonda imprint and, each year, he and his dukes and duchesses confer a prize on a writer. The reward is several thousand euros and a Redondan duchy. The latest recipient was literary critic George Steiner, now Duke of Girona. “Apart from that, there are no duties for the nobility,” he recently said. “Not even loyalty to me.”

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