'Notes on a Shipwreck' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

Notes on a Shipwreck

By Davide Enia, Translated by Antony Shugaar, Other Press, 249 pages, $16.99

The island of Lampedusa, as the Italian playwright and journalist Davide Enia explains in this quiet yet urgent memoir, is territorially European but belongs tectonically to nearby Africa. For nearly 20 years, migrants and refugees launching from Africa have been arriving on this remote, treeless outpost, hoping to travel on to the European mainland. Over 400,000 people have now reached Europe via Lampedusa and at least 15,000 have died trying.

Having volunteered on Lesvos — the Lampedusa of the Aegean — in 2015, when half a million Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees arrived via Turkey, I can confirm that Notes on a Shipwreck rings graphically true: the sodden families huddled on piers and beaches, the chain-smoking paramedics, divers, fishermen and other volunteers reluctantly compelled, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, to report their stories.

Enia quotes such witnesses in generous detail. “Human beings who carry an entire graveyard inside them,” they include a rescue swimmer of right-wing, presumably anti-immigrant views, who nevertheless weeps as he recalls rescuing a child in accordance with “the law of the sea” (“no colours, no ethnic groups, no religions”); Bemnet, a young Eritrean fleeing conscription, who survives three weeks in a dinghy packed with dead companions he is too weak to throw overboard; Gabriella, an Italian doctor who, after assisting in a rescue in dangerous seas, can’t prevent the saved men from dying of exposure on the long return to port; and Simone, a diver dispatched to explore the wreck of a boat that sank off Lampedusa with 250 people in the hold — and whose account of his mission pointedly disqualifies staple disaster adjectives like “traumatic” and “heartbreaking.”

Antony Shugaar’s sensitive translation is marked by restraint, as if Enia is whispering at a wake and might well have preferred silence, in the tradition of the Sicilian male for whom “the best word is the word you never said.” Scored on the page by the use (sometimes overuse) of one-line paragraphs and plentiful section breaks, this dignified brevity only rarely lapses into bathos (“Beneath the ashes of time smoulder the embers of regret”).

Despite the book’s laconic compactness, Enia manages to fuse into it a fully realised personal narrative: that of a beloved uncle lost and a reticent father finally understood. This story flashes between Enia’s Sicilian childhood and the recent past. While his Uncle Beppe is being treated for what at first seems a beatable lymphoma, Enia invites his recently retired father — a doctor, now an amateur photographer — to accompany him to Lampedusa. The son will bear witness to the island’s current reality in words, the father in pictures (which are not, alas, included in the book).

Mixing authorial longing and losses with accounts of the life-or-death struggles of homeless people on a calamitous scale is, of course, aesthetically and morally risky. But Enia’s understatement and touching humour help keep his own losses in perspective. His personal stories focus and footlight those of his witnesses — and how else will readers ever learn the definition of a quaquaraqua or (delightfully) an “octopus moment”? Structurally, the book attests that a sincere engagement with global crises can grow only from a soil of sympathy that’s local and personal. Still, Enia concludes that it’s not he but refugees like Bemnet who will illuminate what’s arguably the most pressing predicament of our time — a desperate mass migrancy — and “show us, as in a mirror, who we ourselves have become.”

In the final pages, trying to console his dying uncle, Enia channels Martin Luther King Jr: “The scale of our history tends towards goodness, doesn’t it, Uncle?” He’s referring both to personal and to global history, of course. In his own life, the decency seems beyond question. In the latter case — especially now, as the ports and borders of Europe close — we can only hope.

Steven Heighton’s recent books include the novel The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep and Workbook: Memos & Dispatches on Writing.