“There was nothing funny about living like a bum in a tent in Pianosa with fat mountains behind him and a placid blue sea in front that could gulp down a person with a cramp in the twinkling of an eye and ship him back to shore three days later, all charges paid, bloated, blue and putrescent, water draining out through both cold nostrils.”1
In Joseph Heller’s famous absurdist novel Catch-22, Captain John Yossarian serves as a bombardier for the Americans in World War II. While a decent amount of the narrative takes place in the air or on the officer’s retreats to Rome, most of the action occurs near their camp on the island of Pianosa. Yossarian spends much of his time gallivanting around the island, cooking up schemes to get out of flying more missions, or hiding from duty in the nearby hospital. He’s accompanied by a series of quirky characters—who lend to the novel its humor and frustrating paradoxes, for which the novel is famous—as well as the haunting memory of a boy named Snowden and the insanity of his superiors.
Just as Heller acknowledges, the island of Pianosa is much too small to contain everything that the novel requires of it; it’s only about ten square-kilometers in size. While it was inhabited by the ancient Romans—Augustus banished and later executed his grandson, Agrippa Postumus, here—the island has since remained unpopulated, except for a period in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when it housed a maximum-security prison for members of the Italian Mafia. Access to the island is limited to only 250 visitors a day under guided tours, who visit largely to see the famous penitentiary or to experience the unbridled wildlife. Neither the American military base nor the native villages that Heller describes exist.
1 Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961. 17. Print.
Marie McDonough is beginning her junior year at the University of Arizona as a Creative Writing major. She enjoys classic and young adult novels, and spends too much time knitting.
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