Ashland writer explores magic of the Azores

Ashlander Darrell Kastin's new novel, "Undiscovered Island," uses a mix of reality and magic to explore ancient Portuguese myth in a setting of the seldom-publicized Azores Islands, his ancestral homeland.

The deftly written and attractively packaged 410-page work quickly pulls you into the mysteries of a worried young woman searching for her disappeared father (a writer) amid the strange appearance of a new island in the Azores, which are nine islands some 900 miles away from their mother country of Portugal.

"The police aren't doing a very good job of tracking him down, so she pieces together what he was working on (in his writing) and finds a cache of it. She's not sure if there was foul play," Katin says. "There are volcanic eruptions. An island rises from the sea. Outlandish things are seen and heard."

His Web site,, notes, "As she pursues the search for her father, Julia gradually succumbs to the bewitching allure of the Azores — and to Nicolau, a fellow musician — eventually discovering a place where dreams lie just beyond the horizon, shrouded in mist. History, legend, poetry and myth are seamlessly interwoven as the novel explores relationships between personal and cultural identity, fate and self-determination, reality and illusion."

Kastin, a rare book seller and sometimes landscaper, grew up in Los Angeles (with 11 years in Ashland so far) and stumbled upon the country — and became entranced by it — at a family reunion there in 1972.

As his ties to the Azores grew, Kastin read and began setting to music some of the great Portuguese poets — Luis de Camoes, Fernando Pessoa and Florbela Espanca — often performing them on guitar with his daughter Shawna, 24, on Saturday afternoons at Key of C Coffee House on Lithia Way. A CD of their songs will be released in Portugal next year.

The Azores began playing a larger and larger role in his life. While learning Portuguese at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Kastin met his future wife Elisabeth, a native of the Azores, who was a librarian there. The school's Center for Portuguese Studies this year published his novel.

The couple recently purchased a run-down, 4,000 square-foot mansion with three-foot thick walls on 17 acres on one of the islands, Santa Maria, and, with government tourism grants, hope to restore it with museum and concert hall.

The pull of the Azores, says Kastin, is that "they are my people. They have a really deep connection with the island. We're not sure why, but we're keenly aware of it. The book is set in the 1980s, when life was very rough, just as it was a century before. Since then, TV and computers have arrived and things have changed."

Lines of the great Portuguese poets are sprinkled through the novel, as are Portuguese legends, including the fountain of youth, the Sea Road to India, the ill-fated King Sebastian of Portugal (disappeared in battle with Morocco in 1578) and mythical islands, including Atlantis and the Isle of Seven Cities or Antilia, both said to have been in the Atlantic, west of Portugal.

Apropos of magical realism, the book starts, "It was a time the people of the island would refer to as 'the Year of Miracles,' due to the number of extraordinary events that occurred: fish rained down on several villages; a drowned man's body was discovered halfway up the steep slopes of Pico; a ghost ship drifted in the waters of the isles; men who could always be found in the bars or working their fields disappeared without a trace; a mysterious, luminescent woman was said to wander the shores at night or swim out beyond the waves, singing in a voice that would deprive a man of his senses."

Kastin says he has drawn inspiration from many Latin writers, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda.

As with much of their writing, Kastin's offers blurry lines between fantasy and reality, he notes, adding that the approach works well against the "stunningly beautiful Azores, which are semi-tropical, green, rocky, with lava frozen black against the sea — very fertile. You can spit on the ground and something will pop up there."

In a blog posting, Kastin wrote that he envisioned a novel version of Camoes's "The Lusiadas," Portugal's national epic based on its explorations in the 15th century and written in 1572.

The book got a first run of 1,000 copies and will be heavily marketed in the Azores and in the many Portuguese-oriented towns in the U.S., including New Bedford, Mass. and Modesto and Turlock, Calif. A short story collection, "The Conjuror & Other Tales of the Azorean Nights" will come out in 2010.

Kastin, 52, is available to speak to schools and other groups. His book, which costs $25, is at Bloomsbury Books and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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