I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw

Optician of LampedusaThe Optician of Lampedusa
by Emma Jane Kirby

This book, like The Gurugu Pledge falls somewhere between journalism and novel – a true story retold in novel form.

Lampedusa is an Italian island that is closer to Africa than Europe. Though refugees crossing the Mediterranean rarely aim intentionally for Lampedusa, it has over the last decade become a common site for boats gone astray. A few years ago Lampedusa’s optician Carmine Menna was taking a pleasant boat trip with his wife and friends when they heard the screams of hundreds of drowning men and women. He was reluctant to speak to reporters, but BBC journalist Emma Jane Kirby talked him into this method of telling his story.

“I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to…You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching…Birds. Just birds. We were in open sea, after all. It couldn’t be anything else.”

The optician and his friends dragged as many survivors out of the water onto their boat as they could until they were dangerously overloaded and the coastguard arrived, telling them to turn back home. Over the following days, weeks and months they tried to find out what happened to the people they saved and the remains of the ones they didn’t, and to deal with their own trauma.

This book made me cry buckets – more than other books I read over Easter where the first-person narrator was directly experiencing war, violence, brutality, rather than being a wealthy European who experienced one day of being surrounded by death. And that made me feel bad about my reaction. Is it because I can empathise more easily with the optician than I can with those who experience war and police states? Or is it that I wish this was a different story?

“He was tired now, but he mustn’t admit it. He’d almost slipped off the stern step himself during the last rescue; it had felt like his arms were stuffed with cotton wool rather than muscles and sinews when he’d tugged the writhing body on board and thumped it down onto the deck. His legs were quivering. But he had to ignore his body’s complaints. He had to keep rescuing people.”

I know it’s important to review the book you actually read, not the one you wish you had read, and I agree with Kirby that Carmine Menna and his friends performed a heroic act that deserves recognition, but this book strips a complex situation down to one man’s brief glimpse of it. I worry that this is a lost opportunity. Kirby could just as easily have used her press pass and the BBC name to tell the story of one or several of the refugees, perhaps even combined with the optician’s story.

Either way, this is a beautifully written, humane book, which makes the point that we should all help refugees for the simple reason that they are fellow human beings who need help. I can’t object to that message.

Published 2016 by Allen Lane Books.

Source: Christmas present from my Dad.

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