Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar

Title:  Hollow Heart

Author:  Viola Di Grado

Translator:  Antony Shugaar  / Italian

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2015)

ISBN:  978 1 60945 271 1

HollowHeart

“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it.
It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.”
― John Lennon

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
― Edgar Allan Poe

“When you look into the abyss, it’s not supposed to wave back.”
― Terry Pratchett

Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011) is the unlikely heroine of the Italian novel, Hollow Heart, released in English this past August by the increasingly chic publisher Europa Editions.  Unlikely because she’s already dead when the book (which functions as a sort of memoir of the afterlife) starts, having employed the perennial method of opening her wrists in a warm bath.  To female suicide what the double axel is to female figure skaters, the way she kills herself grounds by its very ubiquity what proves to be a mesmerizing and wholly original literary work about a young woman navigating death. And doing so with more dexterity than she ever showed in life. Probably not a coincidence.  The very things which she loses – the emotional and physical connections which define our humanity – are the things which caused her so much pain while alive.  Death, if nothing else, grants objectivity.

The bad news about the afterlife is that it’s rather bleak.  Viola Di Grado paints a black landscape where the dead exist as shadows, isolated from those they love, lonely, unable to experience the pleasures they took for granted while alive.  Of course, Dorotea’s existence (as we come to understand it) was rather bleak prior to her suicide. At least now she has some friends and perspective. She keeps a journal recording the decomposition of her body, which she visits frequently and lovingly. She continues to live with her mother and aunt – observing their grief, comforting and tormenting them as the whim strikes her.  She goes to an Amy Winehouse concert (after the singer’s death, of course) with another suicide named Euridice. She seeks out other ghosts, leaving touchingly wistful messages for recently deceased acquaintances.

Hi, I’m Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011). We did theater together in middle school. I was the one who was three years older than you, I had dark hair and freckles, you remember? I’m the one who that time we went to Milan to see the show about Pirandello, on the bus, told you about when my cousin’s duckling almost drowned after it got tangled up in a piece of twine and the other duckling saved it by peeping really loud. You said it was a crazy story. Do you remember that? I know we didn’t talk much for the rest of the trip. And I know that we haven’t been in touch in the fourteen years since. But I heard that you died of leukemia, and since I was in your neighborhood, having died myself just last year, I though that maybe we could get together…

I got your number from a girl who died of an overdose and used to do aerobics with you. I stopped by the hospital room where you stopped living, but you weren’t there. I thought you might be in the morgue, hanging ribbons and necklaces on you frozen body, but you weren’t there either. Nor at the cemetery; that’s where I spend a lot of my time these days. Would you call me at this number? I really hope to hear from you. Ciao, kisses.

Much of Hollow Heart is about Dorotea coming to terms with the life she gave up. The prose is beautiful – moving from the lyrical to the biological – sentences defiantly bright in the face of such a dark subject. “Down there my body feels no regrets: the regrets have stayed with me, and I have to fight them off on my own. My regrets shrill, they whine, they throw tantrums, they keep me from sleeping. They disobey me. They grow. My body has enxymes instead of regrets. They emerged from the lacerated lysosomes and set about destroying their own tissues. And so every one of my cells crumbled itself from within, alone, in silence.”  Life and viscera saturate page after page as Dorotea describes the insects who eat her flesh and then, moments later, is caught up in a memory of a plane ride she took while alive: “The clouds outside the airplane window looked like a motionless sea. A slab of dark waves, caught by surprise in the middle of a storm. Breakers suspended in that enchanted instant right before they crash down on the shore. You could see the entire arch of their bodies, the hook-shaped curve, soon thrust into the earth. A huge hand lifted to grab, as if full of yearning.” Di Grado’s writing is so lovely at times it makes you ache.

I’ve included more than the usual number of excerpts because the writing, as well as the originality of thought behind the character, are what make Hollow Heart worth reading – and, in fact, readable.  Violet Di Grado appears to have done her research, acknowledging the hereditary component of suicide.  She does not hesitate to make her readers uncomfortable or sad.  But in Dorotea she’s given us a character whose charm is only revealed after she sheds her depression with her corporeal form.  Once that happens an inquisitive, sweet, admittedly quirky young woman emerges.  You can’t help cheering her on, if only because she is so hopeful in a place where we’ve been told all hope should be abandoned.  Somehow managing to embrace the afterlife as she was never able to embrace the life that came before.

 

The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo (Antony Shugaar, translator)

Title:  The Pope’s Daughter
Author:  Dario Fo
Translator:  Antony Shugaar
Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2015)
ISBN:  978 1 60945 274 2

Dario Fo – playwright, comedian, Nobel Laureate  –  is an admirer of the 16th century form of street theater known as commedia dell’arte. These roving theatrical troupes employed masks, improvisation, wordplay and slapstick comedy to entertain the masses. The actors and actresses performed broad “types” (stereo- or arch-), which were popular in that time period.

For  The Pope’s Daughter Fo has translated the theatrical form into a novel. He encourages these somewhat archaic references by dividing the tale into episodic chapters with old-fashioned descriptive titles such as: “The puppet king who walks like a marionette” and “Out of enmity between women, sometimes a great friendship can spring”.  At the same time Fo imagines conversations, spins events like a contemporary satirist and displays a razor sharp eye for historical absurdities. The narrative voice (which we can only assume is the author’s own) always seems to be on the verge of laughter. It is a charming, farcical portrayal of the Borgias – with a preamble at the front, a bibliography at the back, and Fo’s drawings & paintings of the main characters scattered between.

“… The chronicles of the time, in fact, reported all sorts of social events, some of them held within the walls of the Vatican itself, with a matter-of-fact approach and without the slightest hint of scandal. But when the Borgias strode onto the stage of Rennaisance history, to the cheers of a horde of supporters, first and foremost among them their closest relations, then indeed the attention of the public, an audience both national and international, really became keen.”

What do we know about Lucrezia Borgia, her brothers and her father?  Quite a bit, actually.  She and her family were 15th century celebrities on the scale of Kardashians – subject to all the attention and public scrutiny that kind of celebrity brings.  There are the historical records.  But because they were so much in the public eye, positioned at the epicenter of all of Christendom really, we also have an almost embarrassing wealth of rumors, gossip & innuendos. Take the time to sift through the mess of information and an image forms of a smart, extraordinarily pretty woman who enjoyed all the privileges of status, wealth & education. A woman who made the sacrifices which were expected of well-born females of that time period.  Sacrifices which were necessary to maintain a life of privilege (three marriages to further her father’s & brother’s political ambitions) and luxury.

History has assigned her the alternating roles of virgin and whore, political victim and poisoner, incestuous seductress and cultured Renaissance Duchess.  That need to define Lucrezia through such a multitude of archetypes has obscured her many real accomplishments and achievements. Few portrayals focus on the known facts: that at age nineteen she acted as governor of the cities of  Spoleto & Foligno; or that she remains the only woman to have sat on the Papal throne and wielded the power of the office (which she did at the age of twenty-one while her father was away from Rome); or that after her father’s death, when her brother most needed help, she would raise and send him an army.  As Duchess of Ferrara she would be known throughout Italy as a Patroness of the Arts.  Byron admired her love letters. Where her father & brother failed in their quest for dynasty, Lucrezia succeeded – many European monarchs trace their lineage back to the Borgias through Lucrezia and her granddaughter Anna D’Este (who was also the granddaughter of the French King Louis XII).

Throughout her life Lucrezia Borgia demonstrated intelligence, humility and no small amount of political acumen – all  of which allowed her to survive the fall of the Borgia family’s fortunes.

This is the Lucrezia Dario Fo is set on portraying.  And to that end he has swept aside much of the unsubstantiated speculation (and cable tv melodrama) to present a very real woman who possesses the full range of human emotions.  Fo’s Lucrezia is in turns frustrated, angry, intelligent, desperate, loving, affectionate, wily, passionate and a little bit bawdy. He allows her to grow from a young girl to a matron. And, realizing that her story is always bound to the stories of her brother Cesare and father the Pope, he’s put them in his book as well. Not as sinister demons consumed only by ambition, but as men with a multitude of failings. Setting them all in a world that bears uncanny (but very intentional) similarities to the one we live in today.

The hardest thing for Alexander VI was getting past the stumbling block of the “morality” issue.  That is, how was he to modify, at least in appearance, his licentious need for forbidden copulation? For that matter, how on earth could anyone keep their distance from such an adorable creature as Giulia? An old saying goes: “If the hyenas are on your heels, then toss them the most savory morsel, say a newborn lamb. You’ll see, when they open their maws to savage their prey, there’s not a hyena or jackal on earth that will pay the slightest attention to anything else.”

And so the great reformation was gently lowered into the swamp of forgetfulness. Every so often someone with a good memory would ask: “When are we going to talk about the revolution again?”

And everyone, from the pontiff down to his cardinals, would reply: “Never fear, we haven’t forgotten. Just be patient and we’ll bring it back up again.”

Sure, and who believed them?

If I’ve given the impression that The Pope’s Daughter is a history book or even your typical historical novel then I’ve badly mis-represented it. Fo creates an atmosphere of old-fashioned theatricality which is unusual and at odds with the genre.  He relies heavily on dialogue, usually imagined but sometimes taken from actual letters, which he exaggerates to the point of pantomime.  He uses this dialogue to convey most of the historical plot points of his heroine’s story. For example, when Lucrezia is attended by the same doctor who was also there when she miscarried her first child she spends some time answering his questions and recounting what has befallen her over the intervening years.  Fo tells his story on a stage: sometimes employing a sardonic voice-over commentary as in the passage above…  or creating elaborate set pieces as in the passage below.

Lucrezia was in Rome. The scene opens in the very instant at which the thump of the doorknocker is heard at the bottom of the central staircase and the voice of a servant girl calls: “Milady, it is your lover who just knocked on the door!” And Lucrezia responded: “At last! What are you waiting for? Let him in?”

“He’s already entered, that’s him on the stairs!”

Alfonso appeared, she hurried toward him to throw her arms around him, and he pushed her away.

“Hey, what’s come over you? Why do you shove me away?!”

“Why don’t you ask your brother and your father, too!  You’re a fine gang of blackguards!”

“Blackguards? Why, are you drunk or are you just pretending to insult me?”

“Listen, you’re a woman of letters, do you like ballads and strambotti? Then why don’t you just try reading this!” And with those words, he pulled a sheaf of paper from inside his jacket. “Be my guest, it’s dedicated to you, or really, I should say, to us both. It’s funny as can be.”

Image taken from the Nobel Prize website biography of Dario Fo.

The scene above features the archly delivered, wooden style of dialogue (seemingly fully aware of the audience listening in) that appears throughout the book.  Similar stylistic choices – which in other books would be seen as weaknesses – make up a good part of The Pope’s Daughter ‘s charm.  Antony Shugaar has done an excellent job of reconciling modern language to an antiquated context.  Fo’s storytelling is self-conscious and referencial in a very calculated way. He plays off of the historical events (juicier than anything he might have made up) and theatrical forms, slyly grinning all the while.  My one criticism is that he doesn’t go far enough.  An often quoted description of Fo, made on his receiving the Nobel Prize, is that he is a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”.  With that in mind, this first novel seems to be at odds with itself.  Instead of a jester who mocks authority secure in his knowledge that he does so with impunity, Fo is strangely restrained.  Some of the characters speeches stop just short of becoming pedantic/preachy.  I was expecting wordplay, pratfalls, send-ups… I suppose I was expecting a little more of the Spanish Inquisition. Fo is so much of a playwright that the absence of the visual, performance component in his work is inevitably felt.  The shadow of the author is standing in the wings of this novel, winking at the audience and holding a banana cream pie behind his back.

While it may not be for every reader, The Pope’s Daughter is sophisticated, clever, challenging and flawed – everything we have come to expect from a Nobel Laureate and in a first novel. With it Dario Fo has decided to rehabilitate the image of Lucrezia Borgia – though in his own, unique way.  His substitution of commedia dell’arte for the sinister gothicism we’ve come to associate with the name Borgia is both unexpected and refreshing.  His combining of contemporary social criticism and (yes) Monty Python-style lampooning is incredibly entertaining.  His history isn’t bad, either.  There’s much more to recommend than not, and it seems to me a delightful first introduction of this Italian artist to an English, novel-reading public.

 

 

This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from Italian by Elizabeth Harris

This Is the Garden opens with an excerpt  from  a poem by Claudio Damiani –

This is the garden; when you look it’s far

too bright and burns your eyes

and so you turn away, although you know

that everything is real, everything you see

is real, and through time life unwinds

and is complete . . .

This is the GardenThose words sum up this collection of short stories by Giulio Mozzi.  Some are very good, some less so.  All involve the reader in situations that are uncomfortable (almost painful):  a letter from a thief to the woman whose purse he’s stolen; an author at a book signing addressing the audience; an apprentice who dreams of being promoted.   Stories that create the kind of emotional response that takes the reader to a place they don’t necessarily want to be are the kinds of stories I’m usually drawn to.  But this collection had me feeling look-warm.  Not excited. Not disappointed.  I kept waiting to be moved and wasn’t.

Yet, there is still a lot left to admire.

The Apprentice puts us in the head of a young apprentice who wants nothing more than to be promoted from running errands to working on the factory floor. He’s incredibly earnest and intelligent, character traits that separate him from the men he aspires to join.  From the very first paragraph we know what the boy doesn’t, for the simple reason that we possess the life experience he doesn’t.  And Mozzi’s ability to impart that time of life when naivety is transitioning into  a faltering understanding of how the world operates is special.  He nails it. Too often young narrators are really only adults looking back on their younger selves.  But Mozzi’s apprentice is grounded firmly in the moment.

F. is firmly grounded in its protagonist’s present, following the final hours of a magistrate in witness protection.  His keeper has arranged a meeting with the beloved magistrate’s wife (also under witness protection, but inexplicably kept in a separate location from her husband). The crime and threats and reasons for the couple’s voluntarily separation only lightly touched on.  Instead F. focuses on the magistrate’s daily reality, detailing his day almost second-by-second, up until the very last second of the magistrate’s life.

Another favorite is Glass.  The story is only a few pages long – the shortest in the collection.  In that short space you get the sense of a troubled man finding his way back from something – again, never specified – which has unbalanced his life.  He meticulously describes his yard to the reader: repairs done to the porch; the wall shared with a neighbor.

I especially like the dividing wall between our yard and the neighbor’s to the right.  It’s just a dividing wall, and that’s probably why it was thrown up without much thought, back when they build the house, after the war. It must have been a brownish-orange once, like the house, but the paint seeped into the mortar, leaving only some dirty-gray stains and a touch of blue. The sun never hits the wall: it’s damp, blotchy, shaded and streaked with dark-green  and silver moss. In some places, you can see swellings, blisters – popped blisters.  In other places, the mortar’s flaking off or crumbling.  The layer beneath is yellowish, dusty. Years ago, the wall was covered in Virginia creeper…

… and so on.  The glass of the title is a metaphor and the overall effect of that, and this compulsive cataloguing by the narrator, is haunting.

A borderline OCD attention to detail, creation of lists and step-by-step reenactments of events appear in all of Mozzi’s stories.  If This Is a Garden were a painting it would fall within the purview of the hyper-realists.

These eight stories are evenly divided between first and third person narrators.  But those told from the third person perspective are more intimate and those were the stories that drew me in. When I stop to think about it, it makes more sense that a third person, omnipotent, narrator would feel more honest and objective.  All first person narrators are unreliable by definition.  They channel the world through a single, biased perspective; describing it as they believe it to be.  A third person narrator presents it as it exists in the author’s/creator’s mind.  And maybe that is another reason I preferred the latter examples.  Because the third person more accurately represents Mozzi’s prose, his writer-ly voice when he’s not attempting to inhabit a character. And it provides the translator, Elizabeth Harris, with greater artistic freedom.  The happy result is passages such as this: ‘The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years – time for the village boys to become village men – before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant.’

Publisher: Open Letter, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 75 7

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (translated from the original Italian by Richard Dixon)

From the opening pages of his newest book one gets the feeling that Umberto Eco wanted to create his own version of The Da Vinci Code.  Like that novel The Prague Cemetery is compulsively readable.  The prose is wonderfully playful – Eco at his best.  It dances along while pulling readers happily behind… almost against their will.  Because Eco isn’t writing about the Knights Templar or Catholic mysteries.  Instead he invites us to take a front row seat at the founding of modern antisemitism.

Obviously, this shouldn’t make for the most enjoyable reading experience.  Yet somehow (as uncomfortable as it is to admit) it does.  The Prague Cemetery plays at being a swashbuckling adventure story told from the perspective of the evil Svengali: one Captain Simone Simonini.  Eco layers in conspiracy theories and enough historical references to keep any Wikipedia junkie employed for hours.

Umberto Eco has deliberately  created this sugar-coated pill.  He writes in the introduction that he expects The Prague Cemetery to find two kinds of readers.  The first, the Dan Brown aficionado, will lack historical knowledge but “should gain a certain sadistic satisfaction from what will seem a perverse invention”.  The second reader will have the historical background to understand that he, Eco, is telling the truth. And “the fact that history can be quite so devious may cause this reader’s brow to become lightly beaded with sweat.  He will look anxiously behind him, switch on the lights, and suspect that these things could happen again today.  In fact, they may be happening in that very moment.  And he will think, as I do: ‘They are among us…’ ”

The novel’s plot is fairly complicated.  It employs three narrators, all speaking in the first person.  The main protagonist, Captain Simone Simonini is an expert forger, a spy, and an altogether shady character.  Much of the book is his personal diary.  He is writing the story of his life in an attempt to get at the root cause of the sudden lapses in memory he has been experiencing.  He’s been, in effect, loosing time (see dissociative amnesia).

During Simonini’s episodes our second narrator – an Abbé Dalla Piccolo who also suffers from attacks of amnesia which seem to alternate with Simonini’s – emerges.  The Abbé has been leaving messages in Simonini’s diary and filling in the blanks.  The two men communicate with each other through their writings in a desperate attempt to piece together their common history and discover the reason for their shared memory loss. (The third narrator refers to himself as, simply, “the narrator”.  His sole function is to help the reader make sense of Eco’s brilliantly complicated plot.)

Despite the fact that he has had some remarkable and fascinating adventures, Captain Simonini is repulsive. Eco has famously stated that this man (the only truly fictional character he claims the novel contains) was created to be “the most cynical and disagreeable [character] in all the history of literature”.  Simonini is defined by a hatred which he does not confine exclusively to the Jewish race, though they do bear the greater part of it.  But, make no mistake, no one is safe. In the early chapters he goes on a tirade bashing the Italians, Spanish, French, English, Prussians and women – the entire gender.  We’re told that “his dislike of others induced him to make the best of his own company”.  At points it borders on the darkly comedic.

Which is a large part of why The Prague Cemetery manages to entertain. Simonini (and his motley underground network) are farcical… and Eco doesn’t hesitate to play them for all they’re worth.  The individual plot points – “the fact that history can be quite so devious” – are stunning yet believable.  But by stacking these episodes precariously one on top of another they appear ridiculous and incredible.  The author forms them into a wobbling tower of implications (the usual foundation of conspiracy theories) and proves how flimsy the supporting evidence is. This is important because even though the unifying figure of Simonini is a complete work of fiction, the events he describes and the conspiracy constructed out of them is not.

Simonini traces his hatred of the Jewish race back to childhood, where he learned it at the knee of his grandfather.  The grandfather took his own antisemitism so far as to write a letter to the Jesuit Priest Abbé Augustin Barruel (the letter and both men actually existed) claiming to know details of a conspiracy by the Jews to take over the world.  This becomes the foundation of a forged document that Simonini will return to and re-work again and again throughout the course of his life, referring to it as “the meeting at the Prague Cemetery”.

He develops his document through plagiarism, conspiracy theory and over-the-top melodrama. He describes his life’s work as “Better than Dumas, and better than the Jesuits”.  Eventually it will evolve into something horrible – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a forgery that is the cornerstone of antisemitism in the 20th century.

I went back to the library, but this time I was in Paris, where I could find much more than in Turin, and here I found more pictures of the Prague cemetery.  It has been there since the Middle Ages.  The burial ground could not be extended beyond the permitted area, and so more graves were added over the centuries, one on top of the other, until there were perhaps a hundred thousand bodies, and the number of gravestones grew, until one was almost touching the next, covered by fronds of elder and without any portraits to decorate them, since the Jews have a terror of images.   In their fascination with the site, engravers had perhaps exaggerated their depiction of the stones, which mushroomed from the ground like moorland shrubs bent back by the winds – the space seemed like the gaping mouth of a gap-toothed old witch.  But thanks to some of the more imaginative engravers who had portrayed it in moonlight, I immediately saw how I could make use of that unearthly atmosphere, placing – among the stones that looked like paving slabs upended by some subterranean tumult – the bent, cloaked and hooded figures of rabbis…

The antisemitism expressed by the characters in this book can make for uncomfortable reading.  Captain Simonini speaks with a casual racism that, while true to his character, is

still offensive.  Worse still are some of the illustrations, racist caricatures of Jewish men that caused me to cringe and quickly turn the page (in the interview I link below Eco describes being embarrassed by them).  But, while The Prague Cemetery is at times deeply unsettling, it is also an amazing achievement.  A book that encompasses a wide arc of 20th century history.  From Garibaldi’s campaigns in Italy, Alexander Dumas’ novels, the Dreyfus Affair, The Franco-Prussian War, Jesuits, Masons, the intrigues of the Catholic Church, Satanic rituals, the discoveries of Sigmund Freud and the foreshadowing of Hitler’s final solution (listed with no apparent order in mind) – Umberto Eco manages to weave it all into an intelligent, challenging story that will hold his reader’s attention until the very last page.

Note:  The Paris Review published a wonderful interview (November 15, 2011) with Umberto Eco on The Prague Cemetery.  It answered many of my questions in a surprisingly short space and I highly recommend it to anyone reading the novel.

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 0 54757 753 1

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In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda (translated from Italian by Howard Curtis)

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?

Yes?

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. 

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