Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“IN THE SEA THERE ARE CROCODILES” Fabio Geda [Howard Curtis trans.] (David Fickling Books / Random House $29:99 ISBN 978 0 857 56008 7

This translation from the Italian carries the subtitle “The true story of Enaiatollah Akbari”. An adolescent Afghani refugee, Enaiatollah took five years to travel from Afghanistan to Italy, where he now lives, by way of Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Greece. The oblique title refers to some of the fabled dangers of the journey.
It begins when Enaiatollah Akbari is ten years old. In his village, the Taliban discourage formal education in the belief that the revealed word of Allah is enough for anyone. The two schoolteachers disagree, and refuse to close down their school. The Taliban murder them in the village square, in front of all their pupils. The school is dispersed.
At this point Enaiatollah’s mother decides, sensibly enough, that exile from Afghanistan is the only way to find a decent life. But when she disappears near the Pakistan border, the boy is left on his own. He has to make his own way to somewhere where a bearded elder will not smash his soup bowl because the particular soup he is enjoying happens to be contrary to religious dietary regulations.
Much that follows is quite harrowing – a world of people-smugglers moving desperate kids from country to country, in return for what amounts to slave labour. With other refugees, Enaiatollah gets bloodied feet as he walks hundreds of miles across mountains into Iran. He is one of the illegal immigrants crammed into the false bottom of a truck to get into Turkey. He later makes it across the sea from Greece to Italy in an inflatable rubber dinghy. Between these events there are scenes of undocumented foreigners, including Enaiatollah, being used as dirt-cheap labour on building sites in Athens as it prepares for the 2004 Olympics. Moments of kindness compete with moments of cruelty as displaced youngsters cross many language zones, sometimes helped, sometimes exploited, and often finding themselves mixing with refugees from many countries.
When Enaiatollah was 21, and had learnt to speak Italian fairly fluently, Italian journalist Fabio Geda recorded  his young life in a series of long interviews. He then recast them as a continuous first-person narrative with, every so often, some explanatory words of dialogue between interviewer and interviewee. It reads as smoothly and engagingly as a simple episodic novel.
At this point, perhaps I should mention that this short and straightforward book is largely intended for the teenage market. Despite everything, it has an optimistic ring, partly from our foreknowledge that Enaiatollah finally attained his goal of reaching a country where he would be treated decently – at least once he was over the hurdle of proving to the Italian authorities that he was a genuine refugee. It could be seen as the familiar genre of “triumph over adversity”. I can imagine clued-up teachers giving it to classes as a good, engaging reader illustrating modern affairs.
But I don’t mean to demean the book in noting this. I read it with as much attention and interest as I read good books for adults. I always consider that one benchmark in judging books for adolescents. 
Enaiatollah’s voice is practical, canny without being nasty, focused on his goal, and thoroughly sympathetic. And what’s wrong with celebrating that sort of voice, after all?

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