** spoiler alert ** About that ending…
El Akkad has won the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year for “What Strange Paradise.” I just finished reading it and found it wonderful, disturbing, frustrating, and thought-provoking all at once. This book will, I suspect, confuse a considerable number of readers. I say this because of the ending, which I must confess upon first reading made me rear up and go WTF?
The novel is ostensibly about young Amir, an 8yr old Syrian refugee tricked into boarding a rickety, unseaworthy, pick-up-sticks, overcrowded boat by human traffickers making a run for a Mediterranean island (presumably in Greece). The boat sinks, predictably, and we are told (or are we?) that Amir is the only survivor.
From the beginning, the novel is told in two time frames, “Before” (the shipwreck), and “After”… or at least we are until the very last chapter, which is “Now.”
The Before chapters follow Amir and his fellow passengers, a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly, on their harrowing, ill-fated journey.
The After chapters follow Amir and a teenaged girl from the island, Vanna, as they try to escape the clutches of a morally corrupt Colonel, and various other characters, good, bad, and ugly.
The novel leaves breadcrumbs for the reader indicating that these two children, orphans in many ways although perhaps not literal ones, are in a sort of fairy tale, a kind of fable designed by El Akkad to teach the privileged reader the truth of the complicated moral landscape we enter when we step into the land of the refugee. Stories within stories, bells on the toes of the dead, and around Amir’s neck, for example.
We — the comfortable, safe and privileged — want, El Akkad seems to be saying, hope. We need it. We crave it. And in the end, when it is denied us, we feel cheated, even angry. We are not comfortable seeing things as they are, in the Now. And so, we learn in the last chapter that Amir did not in fact survive the terrible journey. He is the lost refugee child we have all seen in photographs, his small body rolling in the shallow surf, face down, as though sleeping.
I understand the emotional reaction El Akkad was intending, and I experienced it, I think, as intended, and admit it’s clever. I also feel that because the point of view in the After chapters ventures into the psyches of characters other than Amir (the colonel, the aid worker, Vanna, etc), the reader can’t help but question whether, on a technical level, the narrative works. Who is telling this story? The reader? Is that El Akkad’s intention? Perhaps, but I can’t be sure. Had the narrative stayed firmly in Amir’s consciousness the reader would have been able to grasp, I feel, El Akkad’s intention more clearly. Were he to have chosen a different point of view, however, it would have been more difficult for El Akkad to portray the inner lives of any character other than Amir, and perhaps he didn’t feel up to it, or perhaps he felt the power of the ending rests in its shock value, in how it makes us feel we’ve been lied to, in our confusion, and in our disorientation (not unlike that of a refugee…).
There is an astonishing passage of enormous beauty when Amir is tumbling first through air, and then down, down, down through the water (one of those breadcrumbs the author provides the reader):
“Amir took flight. Headlong into the seaborne sky, the roof of the great inverted world. In meeting him the water was not cold or concussive but warm and tranquil, its temperature the temperature of a body, the temperature of blood. With ease and without pain, he flew past the surface, past the depths, past the places where light and life surrendered and the domain of stillness began. And then lower, farther, past the crust of a million interlocking bodies who’d braved this passage before him and come to rest at the bottom, sick with the secrets of their own unallowed mourning. Past the smallest flour-white bones, past the world at the feet of the world. To the lowest deep, then a lower deep still. Until finally to a dry womb of a place in which were kept safe and unchanging everyone he had ever known, and everyone each of those had ever known, outward forever to encompass the whole of the living and the lived. And each of these the boy met, in their old lives and their new lives waiting, and from each drew confession and each he felt into as though there were no barrier between them, no silo of self to keep a soul waiting. What beautiful rebellion, to feel into another, to feel anything at all.”
We are told, you see, that he has “come to rest at the bottom,” which can only been death, even as the next sentence tell us he surfaces… confusing. But what a bottom it is, full of connection, where us vs them simply doesn’t exist.
And then, there is this passage from Vanna’s point of view:
“Vänna raises herself onto the balls of her feet. She lifts her arms up and outward and feels the breeze between her fingers. She leans back. The bridge turns to sky, the ground to air. How beautiful in their simplicity are the constituent parts of flight. This magic of endless falling that wraps itself around her, this way the body becomes a lightness and the lightness a world. It requires no trajectory, no destination, only a parcel of air and the willingness to never land.”
Falling backwards from a bridge while being pursued can only lead to death, but like the Amir passage, we soon learn she survives. Similaries between the two passages are clear.
Finally, a passage from the evil (but also broken) Colonel speaking to Amir:
‘“But you should know what you are,” he says. “You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief. They will march the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves. Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.”’
The reader becomes the ‘they’ of this passage, and we are told that ‘tomorrow’ it will be as though Amir never existed, as indeed the entire After narrative is proven not to exist in the final chapter. We hope that Amir and Vanna have, as we’ve been told, board a boat captained by an old man taking them to a mythical land of their own people who will care for them, at least until we turn the page and realized we’ve been, for want of a better word, duped.
The world is full of ghosts, El Akkad seems to be saying. We are among them. And we have no idea what to do, how to behave, how to feel. There is, in short, no us and them, none at all, and we let each other down at every step.