The extended title of Fabio Geda’s novel In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is Based on the True Story of Enaiatollah Akbari. Geda explains in his introduction – the events are true, but because “Enaiatollah didn’t remember it all perfectly… this book must be considered fiction, since it is a recreation of Enaiatollah’s experience – a recreation that has allowed him to take possession of his own story”. This struck me as an intelligent choice to make in today’s climate of debunked memoirs. A choice which in no way detracts from the power of the story and a route I’m surprised more authors don’t choose.
In the Sea There Are Crocodiles begins with Enaiatollah Akbari recounting the last time he saw his mother. He was 10-years-old. She smuggled him out of their small Afghanistan village of Nava and across the border into Quetta, Pakistan. Their Hazara (Shia) family was targeted by a gang of Pashtun (Sunni), who threatened to sell Enaiatolla and his brother into slavery as a means of recouping money they claim the boys’ father owes them. Their father is dead.
His mother took him to Pakistan as a last resort. He’d grown too big for her to hide. But she does not explain any of this to him. She does not prepare him. The boy falls asleep to the sound of his mother’s voice and when he wakes she is gone. So begins Enaiat’s new life. One which will take him on a five year journey from Pakistan to Iran, Iran to Turkey, Turkey to Greeze, and eventually all the way to Rome, Italy.
Enaiat tells his own story in a charming and engaging voice, creating the impression that we are reading a transcript. Small asides between Geda & Enaiat, highlighted from the main text in italics, further the feeling of intimacy. In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is a small, slim book. The writing is unexpectedly sophisticated – it’s difficult to describe. Events are relayed simply, starkly, without embellishment…as a child might. Several times the author asks for more details. He tells Enaiatollah that readers will want more specifics. The boy is adamant – all that matters is what happened. The characters are transient – interchangeable – they could be anyone. The facts are the universals. In this way, how his mother left him sets the tone for his entire story. Reasons go unexplained. Emotions are not examined. He is not happy or sad, things are not good or bad. Everything is about survival.
And Enaiatollah Akbari survives. Through most of the book the reader is given the impression that he has moved through his adventures in a giant, soap bubble – breezing through episodes of horror and unpleasantness unscathed. People are kind to Enaiat. As you read it, his does not strike you as a sad story. Despite characters dying, no one is mourned. When a young companion of Enaiat’s drowns during the treacherous water crossing from Turkey to Greece, it is dealt with in just a few sentences. Afterwards the boy’s name, Liaqat, is never mentioned again.
These high waves were different from normal waves. They got mixed up with the others, and the dinghy made a strange movement, like a horse stung by a bee. And Liaqat couldn’t hold on. I felt his fingers slide over my shoulder. He didn’t scream, he didn’t have time. The dinghy had suddenly tossed him out.
Let me get this right. Liaqat fell into the water?
And what did the rest of you do?
We looked for him as best we could, hoping to see him among the waves, and we shouted. But he disappeared.
What initially appears as an attempt to down-play the brutality of the situation could have something to do with the target audience. Separate adult and YA English translations, with different covers, were released simultaneously. (Personally, I’m not sure why the distinction was made – since the whimsical cover of the adult edition could easily work for YA). And while the subject matter is on the mature side, the basic level on which it is written should not be difficult for an 11-12 year old (the age of Enaiat was at the time) to read on their own. Events are dealt with and overcome, not psychologically explored. Which somehow makes them seem less disturbing. That’s where the sophistication I had trouble explaining earlier comes into play. Sometimes the most complicated, carefully designed objects are deceptively simple in appearance. But that kind of simplicity takes skill to achieve. And Fabio Geda has achieved it.
It isn’t until Enaiat reaches Rome, in the final chapters of this wonderful novel, that the full impact of what this young boy has survived hits you. Not because of a moment of sudden introspection. It is the contrast between his life of the last 5 years and how he is now expected to live that sharpens everything, bringing it all suddenly into focus. What has become normal for Enaiat, and for the readers, is not normal at all. Fabio Geda deals with the shift deftly, avoiding the kind of sentimentality that would cheapen this extraordinary story.*
Publisher: New York, Doubleday (2011).
ISBN: 978 0 385 53473 4
*Only , in the end, it doesn’t seem so extraordinary, does it? According to a report prepared for the members of the U.S. Congress in 2007, 56.2% of the Afgani refugee population is under 18. That’s a lot of children who are potentially in the same situation as Enaiat.