By Book Review Correspondent Carly Neely
Recently, I was asked to help a friend’s son prepare for the SATs. One of the practice writing prompts asked for a discussion on the importance of determination and persistence in relation to success. If I had only read this book a little earlier I would have just assigned this book!
In the Sea There are Crocodiles is based on the true story of Enaiatollah (Enaiat) Akbari, translated by Fabio Geda from Italian. The tale follows Enaiat as a 10 year old in Afghanistan to a 15 year old in Italy, traveling on his own. Reading Enaiat’s first person account of his trials creates a feeling of sitting down for coffee with an acquaintance — but before you know it, you’re diving head first into the history of a most unbelievable life. He describes his saga casually despite the unrelenting challenges set before him.
Enaiat’s story begins in a small village in Afghanistan: happily living with his family, playing with friends, attending school, and its all set against an idyllic landscape. Those descriptions strongly reminded me of those in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.
Enaiat is a Hazara, an ethnic group that suffers discrimination, most notably from the Taliban. Out of a desire to protect Enaiat from dangers in Afghanistan, his mother abandons him in Pakistan, making him promise to never steal, cheat, take drugs, or use weapons. However, these instructions, while surely influential, don’t seem to be the driving force behind Enaiat’s decency. He maintains a basic standard of treating everyone as equal human beings. He has the ability to reserve judgment and allow for people to make mistakes. In one amusing interaction, Enaiat attempts multiple times to ask a man when their train reached “Rome.” The Italian man cannot understand Enaiat and believes he is saying “rum” over and over again. The Italian explodes saying that he doesn’t have any rum and instead buys Enaiat a coke. Enaiat is bewildered by this man yelling at him and then buying him a soda, but he never once mentions being upset with the man for his outburst or frustration with Enaiat’s benign inquiries. In fact, the man eventually understands and helps Enaiatollah, which may never have happened if the incident had escalated.
Light-hearted moments involving misunderstandings are few and far between in this story. But don’t be frightened off if you are not a fan of heavy subject matter. A very unique feature of Enaiat’s story is his reluctance to embellish or give any superfluous description of the events. Geda reminds the reader of his presence as translator by inserting questions he asks Enaiat throughout the retelling. One of these questions probed Enaiat for details about the people that helped him, information on what kind of people they might have been. Enaiat responds with: “The facts are important. The story is important. It’s what happens to you that changes your life, not where or who with.” It’s this approach that leads to a story that is touching but without sentimentality. Enaiat’s story is very clear and straightforward, without any sort of psychological analysis of the reasons why things played out the way they did. While that may sound a little dry, it isn’t without great feeling — it just leaves you feeling hopeful instead of emotionally wrought. Dark moments such as coming across a seated group of travelers on a mountain pass who had frozen to death, are treated just as that: a haunting image that is introduced and then is passed without any wrenching of clothing or beating of chests. Without the sentimentality, the events are even starker and harder to digest as a reality that is still with us. Human trafficking, discrimination, and immigration rights are no less in the news now (or any better) than they were when this book was published three years ago.
Traveling from Afghanistan to Italy involved extended stays in Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, each with new lessons. While Enaiat learned how to survive and the importance of finding work, another vital lesson was the importance of community. I was incredibly surprised at how connected these communities were despite great distances. Enaiat could name bridges and parks in Rome and London where he knew Afghans were gathered, places where he could find help. Imagine the strength of a community, risen from a great need, to create connections that crossed countries without the facilitation of cell phones or e-mail or snail mail.
One surprise was the lack of issue regarding the attack on the World Trade Center. Enaiat mentions seeing it on television and how coverage of the event had saturated the airwaves, but there is little to no mention of how that event impacted his travels or interactions. The only explicit mention of the news coverage of Taliban activities post-attack come at the end of the novel during his political asylum trial. I anticipated far more discrimination and harassment than he reported. After thinking about it, it’s possible the outright harassment was somewhat mitigated by his youth. The aggression towards transients and immigrants in communities may have disguised the specific racial discrimination as well. Enaiat also doesn’t seem to enjoy giving voice to his complaints, pulling focus away from the how or why and leaving us with the end results.
This book is highly recommended for readers for enjoyed Little Bee by Chris Cleave but wished for a book solely told by Little Bee. It’s very conversational and because it is told so simply, it is very concise. For such a quick read, it is a moving story about the capacity for kindness and inner strength. If you’re in need of help finding your own determination, the story of this remarkable 10-year-old boy will surely inspire you.