By Jim Kates
Run, don’t walk, to get your copy of this heartbreaking novel about a small person caught in a very big world.
What a strange paradise by Omar El Akkad. Knopf, 256 pages, $ 26.
At Omar El Akkad What a strange paradise is a book that appeals to critics because it is impossible to speak about the book accurately without betraying its structure and its end.
I remember in this much of the recently completed Boston’s Actors Shakespeare Project production of The merchant of Venice. Only now can we say out loud that he repeatedly showed up for four acts as a quirky transgressive comedy to ditch the last act and end with Shylock at Auschwitz. The shock after the schlock was overwhelming and Brechtian. But who could have written about it while the series was still in progress, without spoiling the effect?
Please accept the paraphrase below. Suffice it to say that, for scholars, the gift of the novel is contained in an epigraph before the story begins.
Run, don’t walk, to get your copy of What a strange paradise, a heartbreaking 235-page novel that tells the story of a small person caught in a very big world, a world we know mainly from pathetic photographs and journalistic accounts, a world that is already moving away from our consciousness in a storm and a flood of new catastrophes.
The world is the Mediterranean between Egypt and Europe, where desperate refugees are still trying to find their way to new life. As El Akkad presents them to us, they are not anonymous victims, but living personalities thrown into uncertain seas, pursued by fate: Maher the Palestinian, Mohamed the powerless representative of traffickers in misery, a gravid woman memorizing its English word text for arrival: “Hello. I am pregnant. I will have a baby on April 28th. I need a hospital and a doctor to have a safe baby. Please help me.
The little person is Amir Utu, an eight-year-old Syrian boy whose family fled to Egypt, and who was swept away by a curious accident on a leaking boat, wearing an unnecessary life jacket several sizes too large for him , staggering towards the unknown shore of a Greek island.
The narration of the novel alternates between a “Before” and an “After”, the pivot being the wreckage of the refugees.
A deep cracking sound emerged from somewhere below, the hull giving way. As the Calypso tilted, the flashlight detached from its hook and was washed overboard. Only the faint backlit clouds and the distant colored lights of the shore provided the illumination. The passengers screamed and shouted for help, their voices barely escaping the boat when they were engulfed by the storm. Whoever stands on the shore the Calypso would have been just another plot of night, unheard of and unseen.
“After”, Amir lives through a comic book robbery of the seemingly ruthless coastal authorities under the leadership of a relentless one-legged colonel, with the help of a rebellious local girl, an immigrant from an unnamed Scandinavian home, VÃ¤nna .
VÃ¤nna walks into the farm to find the boy in the far corner, looking into a brown jug shaped container. It’s a pot of maple syrup, a gift from a Canadian couple who had stayed at the inn several years ago. The boy blew off the lid and chipped the amber crystals lining the neck of the container. He eats the shavings, the hardened syrup crunching under her teeth, and as she approaches, she can feel its sweetness burnt on him.
He sees her. He pauses. He backs up.
âDon’t be afraid,â VÃ¤nna says, but she’s sure now that he doesn’t speak her language. He watches her like a small animal watches a rustling of leaves.
The details here – the scared boy tasting the unknown syrup, the sweetness of the air – and the shifting views are compelling. But the details themselves are misleading, different in the detail register of âBeforeâ. I can not say more.
But once you’ve finished the novel, you can never again just be “someone standing on the shore,” for whom the Calypso is “just another patch of night, invisible and unheard of”.
J. Kates is a poet, journalist and critic, literary translator, president and co-director of Zephyr press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. His latest book is Skin as thin as paper (Zephyr Press), a translation of the Kazakh poet Aigerim Tazhi.