“He climbed aboard the frigate, […] aware that a fight was about to take place and that men, on the bulging back of the sea, are nothing”
(Eldorado, Laurent Gaudé, Babel, page 71)
Who is the figure hidden behind this “he”? Is it Salvatore Piracci, commanding officer of an Italian warship whose mission is to look after the citadel Europe against the repeated assaults of the sea? Or might it be Soleiman, storming the European forteress in a frail skiff, taking with him visions of his past life, taking with him the unwavering hope of a better life, far from the poverty and terror of his home country?
Nothing indicates such a departure. Salvatore strolls around in an Italian market. Daily gestures continuously repeated, the sale of fish, the purchase of a certain species rather than another, trite discussions… Words and sentences thrown out through open outcries, that gain bit by bit a symbolic importance. (“So officer, we were touched by a ghost?”, page 11) Then, a figure comes to disrupt the spirit of the soldier, a familiar figure. A main figure in the book, who casts doubts in the functional spirit of our officer. This doubt, which will chase him throughout the book, will also be the starting point of a wholly different journey …
On the other side of the sea, Soleiman drinks his last coffee, in the last bistro that he will go to on his home continent. He shares his last glances, his last sighs, his last words also with his brother Jamal. Then, a mad race, a car that ran out of gas which concludes the feeling of liberty, and we have to go back on the road. Crossing the border to Libya and (perhaps is it not as easy) board the makeshift boat, with unknown fellow travelers but who share the same Destiny and the same dreams.
Organised into very short scenes grouped into seven chapters, into seven acts, the book allows the reader to gravitate around symbolic sites: the Catane, Lampedusa, Ghardaïa, Al-Zuwarah. Sites described with a lifeblood, that outlines every landscapes, the shadow of a tree on the African coasts, the sound of waves running ashore on the Italian lands, the tribulations of travelers atop the bitter abysses.
We recognize the author’s privileged themes, already tackled in his novels and theatre plays. Remember the theme of exile, particularly explored in Le Soleil des Scorta. (Babel, pages 92-93 and following) We could also risk a historical parallel between the transatlantic journeys of the XIX-XXth centuries and the trans-Mediterranean journeys of the beginning of this XXIst century. Parallel that could confirm the poem of Emma Lazarus, graved unto the stoned pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
“[…] Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Will Europe be, as was she, capable of lifting her lamp beside the golden door?
But remember also the omnipresence of death, presented in Le Tigre Bleu de l’Euphrate (Babel, pages 138-139), theme explored once again in the book.
Reading such a book in today’s context turns out to be extremely insightful, the realism being so strong and the presented figures being so human. We learn from it the daily lives of the men of the sea, those who navigate through it in safety to save – and the word is not too strong – the surcharged rowing boats, the ships crumbling under the weight of the refugees’ hopes.
The intertwined destinies of characters evolving in the big Mediterranean fresco, Eldorado is one of those books whose intrigue and style are remarkable, and that we close – not without a certain sorrow – thinking that “here is the fight of night and day…”
Journalist : Pierre SIBUT-BOURDE
Translator : John GORDON