A tale for our times?

This week I’d like to tell you about a book I read over the Christmas holidays. It was not a cheerful book, but it certainly made me reflect and think, as I am wont to do at that time of the year. I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention as it is a beautiful, powerful and challenging exposition of an issue which is rarely out of the headlines: the movement of large numbers of people from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

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Listeners to Radio 4’s PM news programme will be familiar with Emma Jane Kirby and her reporting on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In her dispatches she has returned frequently to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, located about halfway between Sicily and north Africa (Tunisia and Libya). It has become infamous in recent years as the target destination for North Africans fleeing chaos, poverty, war and social disintegration in their own countries, and looking for a more settled way of life in Europe. Mostly, they flee on vessels that are barely seaworthy and thousands of people have died en route.

The book is written from the point of view of a local optician on the island who became deeply and personally embroiled in the crisis when he, his wife and six of their friends found themselves rescuing dozens of stranded and desperate migrants. They were on a sailing trip and were awoken early one morning by a noise they thought initially was coming from excited gulls. In fact the noises were human screams and cries. A flimsy boat, carrying possibly hundreds of people, was sinking and its occupants were drowning.

The eight friends set about a desperate rescue mission, pulling as many people as they could from the sea, dragging them onto their own small boat, and endangering its stability in the process. They rescued dozens before help finally arrived, in the form of the coastguard, who immediately ordered them to cease their mission, as they were putting their own vessel at risk of sinking, and to return to port. The friends do as they are told, bringing those they have rescued to safety on land. They are haunted, however, by the images of what they have witnessed at sea, the deaths of so many whom they did not, could not have, rescued.

The book is very short but it packs a mighty punch. It tells the human story behind the headlines, and this is what has been so powerful about Emma Jane’s reporting on the issue. Through its intense focus on the thoughts and feelings of one individual who played a direct part in saving the lives of so many, it brings to light, not the social and political challenges of this terrible and desperate phenomenon that is covered so extensively in our news, but the personal human catastrophe for those lost, and their loved ones, and those on the island of Lampedusa for whom the crisis is part of their daily life.

It’s the ordinariness that comes through; the optician lives a modest but happy life in a beautiful part of the world. He is not wealthy but he provides a valuable service to his community and wants for little. Like most of us. His small life is completely upended by the events of that terrible day, which is described in vivid detail. He, his wife and his friends are changed irrevocably by their experience and the latter part of the book is an account of how he is transformed.

It is a powerful piece of writing; with a journalist’s eye the author picks out the details which tell the story – for example, the incongruity of the donated clothing worn by the migrants at the reception centre. They have nothing and depend for everything on what people have given.

This book provides a powerful insight to one of the biggest news stories of our age, where the people involved are often objectified and dehumanised. Should be required reading for politicians.

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