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.