Subtle meditation and devastating detail combine in this journalistic memoir of refugee landings on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
A prizewinning playwright in his native Italy, Enia (On Earth as It Is in Heaven, 2014, etc.) relies on the skills he sharpened as a journalist to recount the often deadly plight of exiles traveling over treacherous waters from Africa to Europe. Yet those depths also provide a backdrop for more intimate accounts—of a close friend who succumbed to cancer and an uncle who is suffering the same. In the aftermath of a particularly calamitous shipwreck—only 155 survivors landed on Lampedusa of the more than 500 who had begun the voyage—one rescuer observed, “It’s normal, isn’t it? You see someone in the water, you lean over from the deck of the boat and you do your best to grab him. Anyone who sees a person drowning does whatever he can to rescue him. It’s not like we’re heroes, after all.” Such instinctive decency triumphs over polarized politics or fear of the “other”—a fear that can go both ways, as many of the African refugees have apparently never seen white skin before. The author’s companion witness on the island is his father, a retired physician–turned-photographer who is both loving and reticent. The two communicate through the words the son writes, the images the father captures, and the silences that are pregnant with meaning between the two. “In doing portraits of faces, my father could sense the disintegration of life,” writes Enia, continuing, “it was my father’s way of trying to start a dialogue with God Himself, a dialogue that contained both an effort to understand and a conscious abandonment of self to the mystery of existence.” Like the sea itself, that mystery is fathoms deep, encapsulated in a multilayered narrative that attempts to come to terms with the universality of mortality.
A potent narrative that builds from matter-of-fact observation through horrific experience toward a metaphysical acceptance that is something like a state of grace.