In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

The Asian Review of Books (where I regularly review fiction) has recently been relaunched, with a new editorial board that includes Pankaj Mishra, Ha Jin, Suketu Mehta and Qiu Xialong. Also, the ARB now features essays as well as book reviews.  Do check it out at  http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com

The following review of In the Sea there are Crocodiles appears in the latest issue of the ARB.

My primary reaction when confronted with true stories of heartbreaking struggles against dysfunctional families/societies/economic conditions is… scepticism, and surely, I’m not the only one. In the Sea there are Crocodiles features a ten-year-old boy named Enaiatollah Akbari who must contend against the Taliban, abandonment, inhuman working conditions, and impossibly, even more. Perhaps in recognition of the preponderance of us nasty cynics, In the Sea is seemingly devoid of any deliberate artistry, and is presented as a recording of Enaiat’s memories, with occasional requests for clarification by the listener, Italian novelist Fabio Geda. The pared-down narrative never once seems to demand the reader’s sympathy.

It’s the late nineties, and young Enaiat lives with his mother, sister and little brother in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan. When the Taliban’s activities in the region escalate dangerously, Enaiat’smother sends the other children to live with an aunt, and flees to Pakistan with Enaiat. A few days later, the boy wakes up to learn his mother has left him and gone back to Afghanistan.

Enaiat finds temporary employment and accommodation at a boarding house, but tires of the discrimination and brutality he faces as an Afghan Shia in Pakistan. Without much forethought or preparation, but simply in search of a life less fraught with danger, Enaiat makes his (illegal) way from Pakistan to Iran, Turkey, Greece and finally Italy, where he’s granted refugee status. His journey takes five years.

In the Sea… is an extraordinary tale, one offering a window into the underworld of child refugees and their strategies for survival in societies that make no pretense of welcome. The observational voice is deliberately muted; when pressed by Geda for additional information, Enaiat declines, insisting that the details are not important. “It’s what happens to you that changes your life, not where or who with,” he says. People are either nice or wicked, places are safe or dangerous, and no further weight is assigned to events in this recounting.

Furthermore, Enaiat’s story isn’t set in a larger context of, say, the mythologization of childhood or the politics of the region; it is simply a factual chronological documentary of the narrator’s life from the ages of ten to sixteen (or thereabouts). And here lies the book’s strength and its weakness. The steely austerity of the writing gives it the weight of authenticity and infuses it with power, silencing the nattering of the skeptics. But readers may find that the deliberate spareness of the tale discourages them from a deeper investment in the protagonist’s struggles.

When Enaiat does break free from his self-imposed narratorial discipline, the tale takes on dramatic warmth and appeal. For instance, in a scene where a Turkish trafficker hands him a small box with a deflated dinghy and a pump and life jacket and gestures towards Greece, Enaiat wryly remarks that he’s received an “Ikea flatpack for illegals”. All told, I couldn’t help but wish that Enaiat had chosen to imbue his remarkable story with more of himself; we cynics will go to hell anyway.

10 responses to “In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

  1. This is a story I would love to read. Such true stories open readers up to what really goes on in this world: the effects of wars and more. Most of the time we are dead to these things because they do not take place in our countries or to us as individuals.

  2. I have this one to read, but the fact that it is written more as a documentary is going to be a mixed bag for me. I find it usually hard to connect with a book that’s written in a detached style. I’ll still give it a try, I’m more curious now.

  3. I love your comment about cynics, I’m right there with you in that regard. Though you are right, it’s always a better story when it includes more – we can go to hell😉

  4. @Nana: Absolutely. the book is marketed (with different covers) for YA as well as adult readers, and I hope that helps achieve a wide readership.
    @Athira:Yes, I understand why the book was written the way it is, but I found the detachment a bit frustrating.
    @Amy: Ha! maybe we should form a cynical bloggers club🙂

  5. Heh I’d be up for that😉

  6. Hmm. So is it really a true story, or is it one of those “true” stories which are amalgamations of several experiences? If it’s a true story, why isn’t Enaiat credited as co-author? Your review has left me asking more questions – why did his mother take only Enaiat to Pakistan? And why didn’t he try to follow her back to Afghanistan?

  7. @Ela: It’s labelled a true story. Those last questions are never explicitly answered — we share Enaiyat’s bewilderment, and then gradually figure that the mother did what she thought was best for the other children’s safety, believing that Enaiyat’s chances of survival were better in Pakistan than Afghanistan.

  8. Have heard much about this book and I’m certainly going to pick up a copy. Absolutely agree with you on the comment about cynics. I’m also amazed at how using a child protagonist often expands the readership of a story in a huge way. Not just that, it transforms the storytelling and our reception of it. What do you think?

    • Yes, a child protagonist does affect our reading of the story; I think we as readers don’t hold a child’s eye view to the same standards of accuracy as we would for an adult protagonist. OTOH, I think it’s a tricky task, to write convincingly in a child’s voice. Interestingly, the book is marketed both as a YA and as a adult lit. work, with separate covers. I wonder which one you’ll pick up?!

  9. Pingback: In the sea there are crocodiles | Susan Hated Literature

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