In the Sea There are Crocodiles – Fabio Geda
Translated from Italian by Howard Curtis
‘If you hold a wish up high, any wish, just in front of your forehead, then life will always be worth living.’
I’m not really sure what I expected from this story. Initially, I was seduced by the cover of the book – whether that was the colour, or the gorgeous eyes of the young person – I am not really sure. Then I read that it was the story of a young boy who had journeyed from Afghanistan through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Greece to get to Italy, after his mother had left him on the border of Pakistan. This journey took him five years, in total, from when he was 10 years old, to when he was 15 years old.
And then, with a flurry, the book starts. Now, I love a great first sentence. And this is absolutely a great first sentence, but then it is followed by an even more remarkable sentence that lasts for almost the whole first page.
The thing is, I wasn’t really expecting her to go.
Because when you’re ten years old and getting
ready for bed, on a night that’s just like any other
night, no darker or starrier or more silent or
more full of smells than usual, with the familiar
sound of the muezzins calling the faithful to
prayer from the tops of the minarets just like
anywhere else…no, when you’re ten years old
– I say ten, although I’m not entirely sure when
I was born, because there’s no registry office or
anything like that in Ghazni province – like I
said, when you’re ten years old, and your mother,
before putting you to bed, takes your head and
holds it against her breast for a long time, longer
than usual, and says, There are three things you
must never do in life, Enaiat jan, for any reason…
The first is use drugs.
This is clever. It almost has a fairy tale quality. The reader knows the main ‘character’ has a quest. His mother abandons him. He is only ten, and an innocent, relatively speaking. She leaves him with three (that magical number) wishes, or gifts, to live by. And then we are hurled into the reality of the story with her first wish being for him to not use drugs. From then on, the hardships endured are unimaginable for most children who will read this book.
The book is written in the style of an oral history. The author talks about trying to catch the ‘voice’ of Enaiatollah Akbari, and he really means voice – not some esoteric voice we talk about writers having, but his literal talking voice. Does he manage that? Well, I can’t be entirely sure. It feels at times as though the voice is coming from behind curtains. Firstly, the curtain of time; the story is told well after it happened. Secondly the double curtain of language – Enaiatollah speaks in a language that is not his mother’s – and as the author points out, this means that some of his language is idiosyncratic. He will describe being, ‘as tired as a meatball’ in one sentence, explaining the tradition of rolling and rolling meatballs in the palm of their hands for a long time, and he felt like a meatball because he felt as though a giant had taken him in his hands: ‘my head hurt, and my arms, and another place, somewhere between my lungs and my stomach.’ And then, not much further down the track, someone’s face looks like a McDonald’s hamburger. Additionally, reading in English, we have the translator curtain. Using authorial asides written in italics, the author does also distinguish between when he and Enaiatollah Akbari are talking.
I found this book moving and challenging to read. I absolutely recommend it, especially for those wanting to understand another perspective of Afghanistan. There is a wonderful mixture of beautiful writing juxtaposing terrible ideas and events, ‘The samavat Qgazi so much a hotel as a warehouse for bodies and souls, a kind of left-luggage office you cram into and then wait to be packed up and sent off to Iran or Afghanistan or wherever, a place to make contact with people traffickers.’ There is also humour, such as in the one and only footnote in the story, explaining languages. However, the enduring feeling I was left with was how stark the story was, even told in such a beautiful way. The story is mostly bereft of people and relationships. People are only a means to the next step. In themselves they are not important, because they are temporary in the story of Enaiatollah.
This story is a story of courage and endurance. But, it is still a tragedy. Please read it.