THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Harrowing tale of young Afghan refugee

By Joseph Peschel
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2011

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Italian journalist Fabio Geda has two novels to his credit. His first concerned an immigrant Romanian boy in Italy. That immigrant theme is reprised in his third and latest, “In the Sea There Are Crocodiles,’’ his first novel to be translated into English. Based on the story of a young Afghan refugee, Geda says he has retold it exactly as Enaiatollah Akbari, now about 21, told it to him - yet, he admits, “this book must be considered to be a work of fiction.’’

In the end, it seems a surprising authorial admission, because if we accept his premise that this is a work of imagination, it seems curious that Geda fails to do more with it. Starting when he was 10, Enaiat makes an arduous, harrowing, and circuitous journey from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and then a series of other countries before ending up in Turin, where, at 15, he seeks political asylum. It is in Italy where he meets and tells his story to Geda, apparently in a flat, strangely unemotional way, broken up only by occasional childlike jokes and some superfluous and intrusive questions from Geda.

Enaiat’s tale begins in 2000. The Taliban terrorizes Afghanistan. Enaiat’s mother and a guide have fled the country and taken Enaiat to Pakistan to escape enslavement or worse. Mother makes Enaiat promise never to use drugs or weapons, and never cheat or steal. In the morning, Mother is gone; she’s left him to fend for himself, believing the boy’s fate in Pakistan to be better than what awaited him in Afghanistan. Enaiat, 10, finds a job at a samavat (a hotel of sorts) where he works all his waking hours for food and a place to sleep.

After six months, he takes a better job selling goods in the bazaar, but he has to buy his own food and sleep where he can. Soon, he learns to cheat and steal, despite his promise to Mother, explaining, “in order to stay alive we’re willing to do things we don’t like.’’ Eventually, he and a friend save enough money to find a “people trafficker’’ to take them to Iran for better work and better lives. After working in Iran and being chased and expelled several times, Enaiat decides to go to Turkey. The journey, with 77 other refugees, is supposed to take three days, but takes closer to 30. In the mountains, they come across another refugee party that has frozen to death. In Enaiat’s group, 12 people die along the way. He arrives in Istanbul blindfolded and from there makes his way, relatively quickly, to Greece, and finally Italy.

It’s an intriguing story, but absent from it is any deep, convincing sense of how Enaiat feels about the events that befall him. We are told that he reacts with sorrow when he recalls the death of his teacher; he seems terrified when pursued by police who shoot at him with Kalashnikovs. He does possess an understated sense of humor, even when he recalls horrible scenes: When the Pashtun threaten to kill his family, Enaiat tells us, “[it] isn’t a nice way to do business.’’

But most of the time, if there is a sense of panic, terror, or sorrow, it goes unremarked. And we are left with a simple, matter-of-fact chronology: First this happened, then this. Since Geda chose to write this as fiction, one wonders why he failed to take the license to fully breathe life into the characters and the scenes, the outlines of which are already quite dramatic. Also, Geda’s interruptions of the narration with superfluous questions seem out of place. A better choice might have been to ask questions designed to draw out Enaiat emotionally, perhaps making this a more satisfying read.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com.

IN THE SEA THERE ARE CROCODILES:

Based on the True Story of Enaiatollah Akbari

By Fabio Geda

Translated, from the Italian, by Howard Curtis

Doubleday, 215 pp., $22.95