The Refugee Crisis in a World that Refuses to Help
Review by Sean Barrs
Authors that write novels about their own personal experience insert a new level of emotion and power into their writing. Juan Laurel immigrated to Spain in protest against the government in Equatorial Guinea. Just like the men in this book, he fled his mother country in search of asylum. His is another story against the backdrop of many who have wished for a better life away from the horrors of corrupt governments.
The novel begins with a group of men gathered around a campfire, and despite their very varied backgrounds and personal beliefs, they share a sense of kinship based upon the idea of immigration, of finally finding refuge in Europe. They are all fleeing from something, something that is haunting their steps. They gather at Mount Gurugu and gaze at the Spanish enclave that is in the distance: their road to freedom. They tell stories and play football to pass the time, hoping for an opportunity to come their way. The stories are diverse in content; however, they all rest on the theme of escape, of a desire to enter a new land. The truth appears stretched at times and in one case the story sounded more like a moral allegory rather than a man’s personal experience. By doing so Laurel recognises that desperation brings men together: it makes them want to help each other and find freedom.
In the vein of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Laurel demonstrates the power and individuality associated with the African voice. Pseudo-cultures have formed within their gathering, and each story told at night reflects in the eyes of the listener. They have heard the story before because it is also their story: it is the story of the asylum seeker who has had to escape and is now being thwarted in an unjust world. Despite this though, they have no collective identity and as such often struggle to communicate with each other because they do not all share one unifying language. What Laurel shows is the individuality behind each member of the gathering; they share the same purpose but they have not all come from the same place with the same experience: they each have their own unique voice, and cannot be reduced to a single label.
One question the men begin to ask themselves is one every immigrant must ask eventually: are they welcome in the new country? The locals around Gurugu treat them rather coldly. Some are kind, but some are completely fed up with what they perceive as a nuisance living on their doorstep. Europeans would be even less friendly by this logic. In this, we see a distinctively African perspective on the situation. The aftermath of the European colonisation of Africa in the nineteenth century has allowed such political upheaval to arise, but the European powers are doing nothing to recognise it. By giving the African’s such a perspective here, Laurel touches upon humanitarian themes. His writing suggests that it is time to stand up and help rather than closing the doors.
And such a thing is so relevant today.
In a Europe that allows the first country of contact to front the financial cost of refugees as per the outdated Dublin regulation, in a Europe that is clearly not unified, change needs to happen. These first countries are often the poorest and simply cannot afford the refugees. They become unwelcoming and frustrated. In fact, Europe takes active efforts to prevent refugees from entering, effectively diverting them elsewhere with little thought of the consequences. What Laurel represents here is the need for change, a need for a wider aid effort and relief system. He represents the experience of the refugee who lacks such a thing. It is one thing to discuss the financial cost of immigration, but it is another thing altogether to speak of the true cost: the cost paid most dearly in human life.
Thus, the desperation of the men begins to speak for itself. I found it rather touching that each man secretly wished to get noticed for hid skills at football and as such get signed on to a major team, though the naivety of such a wish is testimony to the urgency of his situation. They want to escape but they are penned up at Gurugu, and a tempest of emotional rage, anger and frustration is building up within them. Ever so slowly, and subtly, the tension is built upon as the novel progresses and by the end, the dam is ready to burst.
Laurel delivers the final push to freedom with dramatic urgency, once again demonstrating the need for change.
As ever the publisher And Other Stories have provided another excellent voice in translation, allowing its readers to understand the experience of others with a bit more clarity. This book is recommended to those interested in postcolonial theory and literature, but especially those who wish to understand the experience of the refugee in a world that refuses to help.
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