In The Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda
One night before putting him to bed, Enaiatollah’s mother tells him three things: don’t use drugs, don’t use weapons, don’t steal. The next day he wakes up to find she isn’t there. They have fled their village in Ghazni to seek safety outside Afghanistan but his mother has decided to return home to her younger children. Ten-year-old Enaiatollah is left alone in Pakistan to fend for himself.
In a book that takes a real experience and shapes it into a breath-taking narrative, Italian novelist Fabio Geda describes Enaiatollah’s remarkable five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy where he finally managed to claim political asylum aged fifteen. His ordeal took him through Iran, Turkey and Greece, working on building sites in order to pay people-traffickers, and enduring the physical misery of dangerous border crossings squeezed into the false bottoms of lorries or trekking across inhospitable mountains. A series of almost implausible strokes of fortune enabled him to get to Turin, find help from an Italian family and meet Fabio Geda. In Geda’s skilled hands, Enaiatollah’s journey becomes a universal story of stoicism in the face of fear, and of the search for a place where life is liveable.
Last year I reviewed The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, only to find that whilst appreciating the fact that it was a book trying to shed light on what life is like for a refugee and the trials they have to endure just to find a place where they can live in peace; I really disliked the book as a whole and felt that there were probably other authors out there who could give these people a better voice. When someone suggested I try In The Sea There Are Crocodiles, a story based on a real-life refugee, I jumped at the chance to be able to compare the two and see if Fabio Geda could tell the story with that little something extra that for me, Chris Cleave lacked.
In The Sea There Are Crocodiles is based on the true story of ten-year-old Enaiatollah, a refugee from Afghanistan. When Enaiatollah met author Fabio Geda at a presentation of Fabio’s latest novel, a story based on a Romanian boy’s life as an immigrant in Italy, Enaiatollah told Fabio of the similar experiences he’d had in life. Fabio couldn’t stop listening to Enaiatollah telling his story, and the two soon started writing the beginnings of a novel.
This novel grabbed me instantly from its very first pages. Maybe I’m being naïve here but I really couldn’t believe that a mother would leave her ten-year-old son alone in Pakistan, a place he has never been before, to fend for himself. Enaiatollah is from a small village in Afghanistan, a country torn apart by war. I can’t imagine how awful it must feel to leave your son alone in a place he doesn’t know, with the possibility of never seeing him again. But when the alternative is to carry on living your life in Afghanistan, a place controlled and corrupted by the Taliban, there is no other option. Enaiatollah’s mother wanted him to have the best life possible, and to do so he had to get out of Afghanistan. I think his mother was extremely brave for doing what she did. It’s easy to sit here and judge her when we lead the comfortable lives we have, but when you put yourself in her shoes, it’s easy to see that it was probably one of the hardest decisions of her life, but one that had to be made for the sake of her son’s life.
So, ten-year-old Enaiatollah makes the journey from Afghanistan, to Iran, to Turkey, to Greece and then finally to Italy where he finally manages to claim political asylum. His journey is incredible, one I could barely believe at times. His living conditions were terrible, his working hours were very long, and his pay very little. He is forced to put his life in the hands of people traffickers every time he needs to cross a border from one country to the other. He has lived in the bottom of a lorry for days with very little water and no light; he has trekked across mountains for over twenty-seven days, and witnessed many young boys’ deaths along the way. It is a fight for survival, and only the toughest will survive. It’s very hard to read at times, because ultimately you are rooting for Enaiatollah’s survival, but when you read about all those young children who were in the same situation as him, just striving for a better life, and you witness their deaths one by one, you realise just how incredible it is that Enaiatollah even survived his journey from Afghanistan to Italy. I can’t imagine how he had the strength to do it, and I probably never will understand, but I will always be in awe of him for it.
The way this story has been told is also very unique. Throughout the novel, you get little glimpses into the conversations between Enaiatollah and Fabio Geda himself, as they ponder his circumstances at various points. This may bother some readers, as it interrupts the flow of the story and makes it feel like an interview at times. However, I found it to be a very welcoming addition as, for me, it reaffirmed that Enaiatollah’s story is real. Of course Enaiatollah’s memory certainly wasn’t perfect, and Fabio had to help him reconstruct his journey using maps etc, whilst staying true to his story. But ultimately this isn’t a work of fiction, it is based very much on real events. However, if I was to criticise this novel in any way, it’s that because this story was told to Fabio it reads very much in that vein. Enaiatollah doesn’t spend much time mourning the loss of other refugees on his journey, for him this is what happened and he’s telling it like it was. I didn’t get a great overwhelming sense of emotion from Enaiatollah’s voice. The emotion comes just from the simple facts of his journey, rather than him pouring his heart and soul on to the page. But sometimes, on the odd occasion, I craved for Enaiatollah just to at least remark on the people who hadn’t survived their journeys like he did.
In The Sea There Are Crocodiles definitely surpasses The Other Hand by Chris Cleave for me. Enaiatollah and Fabio tell it how it really is to be a refugee. You will be left in awe of this book, and the life that Enaiatollah has lead. It is a remarkable journey and one that should never be forgotten. I know it will stay with me for a very long time…
In The Sea There Are Crocodiles is out now, published by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Random House. A huge thank you goes to Harvill Secker for providing me with a copy for review.
- In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda (translated from Italian by Howard Curtis) (booksexyreview.com)
- In the Sea there are Crocodiles, By Fabio Geda, trans. Howard Curtis (independent.co.uk)
- Harrowing tale of young Afghan refugee (boston.com)
- In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda – review (guardian.co.uk)