“On the Sea”: The Optician of Lampedusa

I was on the sea that day. And I don’t rule out that it could be me on the sea again tomorrow. There will be another time, another boat. There will be more hands, more bodies thrashing, more voices begging. Every time I am on the sea now I’m searching for them, scouring, breathless.

The Optician of Lampedusa is written by journalist Emma Jane Kirby, but it is not her story: it is the story of Carmine Menna, an optician on the island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily. Because of its proximity to Libya, Lampedusa has been a key destination for people crossing from Africa to Europe, often in overcrowded and ill-equipped boats run by unprincipled smugglers. Like many on Lampedusa, the Optician (as he is referred to throughout) was aware of the migrants and refugees mostly as an inconvenience, an occasional distraction from the ordinary business of his life:

His neighbors collected food and stuff for them; there was always someone rattling a tin. A woman, presumably from the parish, had called round that morning asking if he had any old clothes or shoes to donate but he’d been drowning in paperwork and hadn’t had time to stop. Apparently the migrant center was full to bursting again; maybe that’s why they preferred to wander the island like this.

Crazy, he thought, that they all turned up here when this country had precious little to offer them.

The Optician of Lampedusa is the story of Carmine’s awakening to the horrors–literal and moral–of the situation he’s been living in with such indifference for so long. He and his wife and some friends are on a boating holiday when they awaken to a sound he thinks at first is seagulls. As they steer the boat towards the disturbance, they realize that they are hearing the desperate screams of hundreds of people, drowning:

The ocean reverberated with their screaming, the terrible sound bouncing off of and coming from under the water, gargling and rupturing. The Optician recognized the screams as the music of the dying, the final dirges of the drowning. In the chorus of voices he could pick out each individual soloist. Everyone was begging to be noticed.

He and his friends manage to pull 47 people out of the water; exhausted but frantic to save more if they can, they are finally sent back to shore by the Coast Guard, their own boat dangerously overloaded.

Only two chapters of The Optician of Lampedusa are about the rescue. The rest of it is about the context of the event, both personal (in the lives of the Optician, his wife, and their friends) and moral. The first chapters focus on normalcy: the everyday business of the Optician’s life, the nice dinner out before the boating trip, the pleasure of the time away from land and work. The chapters after show the same life stripped of its protective layer of willed ignorance. Once the Optician hears the roar on the other side of silence, he cannot go back to his previous wadding of stupidity. He can’t understand how he could have been so impervious to so much nearby suffering. He can’t understand why the catastrophes have continued for so long, why the response of governments and aid agencies and local people hasn’t been better, or done better. He can’t bear the memories of the people they couldn’t save; the only saving grace, for him and all those on the boat that day is the connection they maintain with the people the could save–and that doesn’t seem like much when so many were lost.

The Optician of Lampedusa is as clear an example as we’re likely to get today of literature written with the kind of intense social purpose we associate with Dickens. “And dying thus around us every day,” Dickens says in Bleak House, both the switch into neat iambic pentameter and the first-person plural making the line instantly memorable and easily portable. The Optician is appalled at his own failing of conscience: as he went about his business, people were dying thus around him every day. He is deeply touched when the survivors present their rescuers with a gift:

a simple but beautifully executed drawing of a grasping hand coming out of the water being met by another hand which clasped it in a fierce grip.

Though this is a lovely representation, it is more comforting than The Optician of Lampedusa itself, which ends not with uplift or salvation but with a stark reminder, in the Optician’s own words, that there will be more boats, more deaths.

Kirby’s Foreword notes that she and her BBC colleagues met the Optician while looking for ways to keep their audience interested in the migrant crisis:

We were aware that our listeners were feeling saturated with the migration story and had begun to switch off from it, so we were keen to find a way to recall their attention to the enormity of this news story.

They are all, is the clear implication, in the same situation as the Optician: grown indifferent, not from cruelty or callousness but from familiarity and a sense that this is not really their problem. The Optician thus serves as a kind of Everyman (which is presumably why Kirby doesn’t use his name), a stand-in for all of us who have somehow allowed this human disaster to go on and on without trying to help.

It’s a powerful book with a morally inarguable message. It doesn’t offer any simple solutions, or really any solutions at all: it doesn’t delve into the reasons people are undertaking these appallingly dangerous journeys, or suggest any particular policies for the receiving countries that might ameliorate either their risks or their reception. The focus is entirely on the human aspect. Just as Dickens’s novels have been criticized since their first publication for failing to offer solutions, I suppose The Optician of Lampedusa could be met with reasonable questions about what exactly is the right thing to do, given finite resources and complicated domestic situations, economically and politically. There’s also the hard truth of competing demands on people’s attention and sympathy and personal resources: Eliot wasn’t wrong when she said we could die of the roar on the other side of silence. It’s only when you let people dissolve into abstractions, though, that these seem like adequate replies. The Optician knows he isn’t going to change the world, but what he’s learned is that he should pay attention to what’s nearby and do what he can. That response to suffering leaves a lot of big questions unanswered, but at least it isn’t doing nothing.

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