“The sea gives and takes life, when it chooses to…”
In hard times, when the scale of suffering moves from tragic to catastrophic, when pain floods a land like a tsunami, many people would ask themselves what difference one person can make. How do we, as individuals, stand against the force of that kind of oppression, horror, despair? Notes on a Shipwreck, written by journalist, poet, and playwright Davide Enia and published by Other Press, doesn’t provide an answer so much as a series of beautifully written and often heartbreaking vignettes that may act as meditations on that question.
The title refers to one specific event and to many such events. The 150-mile stretch of Mediterranean Sea between the African continent and the southernmost island in Europe, Italian-held Lampedusa, is a busy refugee crossing point. On October 3, 2013, a small boat carrying around 500 refugees caught fire a half-mile off the coast and sank, taking with it more than half the souls onboard. Fishing crews and holidaymakers in nearby boats plucked people from the water as they were able, hauling them up by their clothing, the refugees’ bodies too slick with spilled boat grease and fuel to get a grip on their hands or limbs. It was a living nightmare for anyone who witnessed it and lived. More than 250 perished. And yet, even knowing the odds, for those 500 refugees the dangerous crossing was their best option.
A constant stream of flimsy rubber vessels and too-small ships packed to overflowing with desperate and vulnerable people attempt the passage. The inhabitants of Lampedusa time and again are called upon to try, often unsuccessfully, to shepherd them to safety. Notes is partially about the permanent inhabitants of the island and short-term visitors who have changed what it means to live there. The fisherman on the island speak of constantly pulling bodies off of their fishing nets. When Enia questions their choice of words, their reply is this: “You know the word ‘constantly’? Constantly.”
It is the first brutal truth in a book absolutely full of them. Imagine: You’re a rescue diver. You’ve arrived at the site of a capsizing. Hundreds of people were squeezed onto a rubber dinghy meant for a third of the number. Three men nearby call out for help. A little farther away, a young mother with an infant no more than a few months old struggles to keep herself and her child above the waves. None of these people will be able to keep their heads up much longer. It’s very likely haven’t eaten or had a drink in days. They have been forced to stay cramped in one position for that time, their limbs stiff and energy depleted. Who do you save? And once you have made that decision, how do you live with it? Even more to the point, how do live knowing you’ll have to make it again a few days later?
One rescuer pulls the body of a small girl from the water and sees she is the spitting image of his own daughter. They are nearly identical. How can we expect him to continue to act while we read and then dismiss these stories of the tragic and utterly preventable? One of the more helpful skills we have is also one of our greatest shortcoming as a species. People dissociate. Detach and compartmentalize in order to deal with stressors that could otherwise prevent us from acting under duress. It’s how surgeons save lives. Taken to the extreme, such detachment makes us cold, sociopathic. Just look at people who might consider themselves good people, but who see refugees fleeing from truly horrific conditions in Syria or Central America, who see a dead refugee child, and not just feel nothing but actually rejoice.
Imagine again: You’re the one medical examiner in the small local morgue. The remains of two young women, probably still in their late teens, are laid out before you. Their bodies show the traumas of their trip. Underneath two fully doubled sets of clothing – they still died of hypothermia – you find burns, cuts, bruises, and the signs of multiple rapes. In the dinghy they were forced to sit for days, unmoving, in a toxic sludge of urine, vomit, gasoline, and sea water, the acid further destroying their young bodies. These findings are not unusual. This is standard. How do you bear it?
Enia offers two options: The first is to let his mind go elsewhere. He changes focus. He reminisces about family and friends, about vacations taken in his youth. He talks about the local people who have become like family, whose home is his each time he returns to the island. To focus solely on the refugees, the rescuers, and the heartbreak would be too much. We aren’t built that way; our minds simply aren’t equipped to handle trauma in that magnitude. So we meet his father, his uncle, sick with cancer and in and out of the hospital. He talks about their lives, their complex and loving relationships, their hobbies and how they relate to each other.
Then he goes back to the refugees, though never getting too close. We are invited to consider them as complex individuals like ourselves. We acknowledge the truth of existences cut short and horrors experienced. We think about how they once had families who loved them, they told jokes, they had favorite songs and favorite foods. They were determined and brave to face such a dangerous journey alone. When you think of them that way, not just as a faceless, nameless, monolithic group labeled “refugees,” suddenly it becomes possible to empathize rather than shut out and shut down. Imagine yourself in their place; what would it take to force you to such an extreme act? What would you have to suffer to make this the better choice?
The rescuers of Lampedusa separate the bodies from the idea of who these people used to be. In doing so, they can hope to remain in good enough condition to continue pulling people from rough seas and treating the survivors. As readers, already distanced from these scenes of continuing rescue and constant death, we can’t fully understand the trauma these people, refugees and rescuers, deal with on a regular basis. Perhaps that is why Enia takes us away from Lampedusa so often. He takes us to meet his ailing uncle, his emotionally distant father. We get no closer to the people on the boats, and Enia continues to talk to the people who talked with the refugees, but not the refugees themselves.
To feel all of the collective pain of other people would be overwhelming. So distancing ourselves, turning off our empathy and compassion when the need is so great makes some sense as a means of self-preservation. Taken to the extreme we find sociopathic behavior, the Tomi Lahrens of the world. But on the small island of Lampedusa, that isn’t really an option. One resident tells the story of a time shortly after she and her husband came to reside there. They watched from their window as a dinghy landed unexpectedly on their side of the island, the dozen or so people disembarking and climbing the hill toward her house.
They start to shutter the windows, but then comes a realization: These are people. They’re just people who, by chance, were born in places in turmoil, who faced unimaginable hardships, and have risked their lives for something better. There but for the grace go I. When they opened the doors and invited in the tired strangers, the people refused; they were dirty and didn’t want to track dirt into the house. They accepted blankets and food, but insisted on staying outside in the cold until morning.
Notes on a Shipwreck is well constructed and beautifully told. The story of Lampedusa is broken up with a number of intimate looks into the inner workings of Enia’s own family and what they are going through as their beloved brother and uncle slowly deteriorates. In these moments it’s easy to forget what the book is about, ostensibly. This is where Enia’s telling falls short, which he points out himself.
Lampedusan friend and host Paola lays it out: “What’s happening on Lampedusa, what’s been going on for twenty-five years, is like a car crash that just keeps happening. There are survivors, dead victims, and the injured, and since I live in an apartment overlooking the street where the crash takes place, I have reporters who knock on my door and ask me questions. But it’s the people who were in the car crash who really ought to be interviewed, they’re the individuals we should be listening to.” Says Eniac, “Our words are incapable of fully capturing their truth.”
This feels like a missed opportunity to hear refugees’ stories from their own mouths, to show them as real people, to give names and faces to the crisis. To readers who have a capacity to help from afar, Notes on a Shipwreck glances in the refugees’ direction only to pull away and again focus on the familiar. Understanding the refugee story could encourage us to not just read but actually act compassionately. Instead, the greatest emotional connection in the book is to a man who, though pitiful in his failing health, has the support of family, friends, and modern medicine.
Though he stood at the very dock where refugees and rescuers meet, Enia kept his distance. He could have used his great skill with words to appeal to our better natures. He could have helped us connect with people who have nothing and everything in common with us, and to show us how we could make a difference for them. Instead, we are just watching strangers from afar.
We can contemplate what it is to be a refugee, but not having connected with any, empathy remains an exercise in imagination. Can we, from positions of comfort, imagine the true extent of pain people can inflict in one another? And can we, in our comfort, find the urgency to act? The people of Lampedusa have urgency thrust upon them, and they do what they can for these desperate strangers. In their places, would you run to the shore with blankets and food, or would you retreat into the dark, draw the shutters, and lock the door?
Notes on a Shipwreck
Top photo: Bigstock
Author photo and book cover courtesy of the publisher.