A tale of two caged men that provides an affecting fable for the plight of refugees.
The poorly clothed strangers arrive in an unnamed town and are given a room in a hotel. They’ve come from far away but decline to give their names, addresses, or the reason for their travels, which soon emerges as flight from some cataclysm. When pressed, the strangers respond symbolically, making from fencing wire a sculpture like a large, crude tea-strainer, which “represents [their] conundrum”: They are people who cannot speak of a past they have fled. Two townsmen scale up the creation, building a graphic irony that will confine the strangers until they explain their catastrophe, which is deemed important to the town’s well-being. In this cage they are exposed to the elements, fed through a hole, cleaned with a hose, and forced to eliminate in situ. The foul smell permeates the narrative. A committee forms to oversee them and asks a young man, the first-person narrator, to deliver weekly reports on their behavior. He’s eager, callow, not without empathy—a plausible stand-in for many readers. For the New Zealand–born Jones (A History of Silence, 2013, etc.), the strangers’ reticence serves the nonspecific nature of fable, but there’s an implication that they know from experience that their answers won’t satisfy their inquisitors. Similarly, they often ask about “the woman from the agency,” a Godot-like figure who also suggests this isn’t their first run-in with the elusive totems of bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the narrator gets fleshed out more than the committee members, with their smug justifications and group shrugs. He comes to reflect another conundrum, that of the well-meaning observer who seems to grow in awareness, even to care, yet still risks little to relieve abject conditions.
An eloquent microcosm of the existence endured by many of the world’s 68.5 million displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers, as recently counted by the United Nations.