Review: African Titanics, by Abu Bakr Khaal (2008 / 2014)

~ African Titanics ( تيتانيكات أفريقية, Tiitaaniikaat afriqiyya; 2008), by Abu Bakr Khaal. Translated from Arabic by Charis Bredin (Darf Publishers, 2014). ~

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It’s difficult for me to put out an unequivocal judgment on African Titanics. On the one hand, it’s a pretty singular book: a dense, intense, often poetic narrative of an illegal migrant’s adventures, en route from Africa to Europe; a topic which arousing more and more social political interest with every overcrowded “Titanic” (as Titanics’ protagonist, like Khaal himself an emigrant from Eritrea, calls them) rescued in the Mediterranean. Still, its terseness didn’t really allow the ideas to be developed as fully as I might have wished. That there is a voice speaking on the subject is itself important; and Khaal’s is a singular, and very memorable, contribution – though probably not the definitive one (see below though for why I think this might ultimately be a good thing).

The core of Titanics is composed from episodes taken from the experience of the narrator – the Eritrean Abdar – and other migrants as they cross the expanses of north-eastern Africa on their way to the promised land of Europe. This final goal is never questioned; we’re made to feel as if all the migrants are on some sort of quest, drawn into a larger, almost mythic narrative that sets countless trials and obstacles in their path. There are hellish desert journeys, in jeeps pursued by bandits, with not enough food and water; a thriller-like border crossing during a storm in Tunisia; holding on for dear life in a leaking fishing boat in the Mediterranean. People die, often in gruesome ways, and the narrator gives us just enough background on each to make the loss have an impact. Abdar himself never even makes it to the final, “Titanic” stage of the journey; after deportations in North Africa he returns, ostensibly, back to Eritrea, richer at the very least for the experience and – more importantly, for the novel’s themes and structure – the stories passed on to him by his various journey-mates and that are recounted in the book, often at some length.

A perverse version of the Hero’s Journey, perhaps. But towards the second part of the book, the path of the “hero” – the narrator, really, if we go by the supposed structure – comes to be drowned (as it were) by all the other narrations. There are so many tragic, and colorful, stories to tell that Abdar’s own experience simply can’t compare. By the end of the novel he retreats into the background, and no longer functions as a compelling character.

Part of this is of course the point: no single person can bear the weight of all the particular, personal stories of tragedy that trans-Saharan ‘refugee flight’ produces every day (and has been producing for decades). All we can manage is fragments, perhaps, as Titanics offers up, in its role as a “many-sided memorial” (as ArabLit in English put it) to all the unsung crossing heroes. There is a chance here for a deeper commentary on shared narratives, perhaps even the disappearance of “authorship” in such conditions; but Titanics’ conclusion isn’t managed with quite enough skill to effect that. I was left with the impression that, given a few more pages, there could have been a better chance for the narrator (who- or whatever he ultimately is) to be situated with respect to other stories. As it is, the ending just feels abrupt – as if Abdar was only being given a ‘formal’ conclusion to his storyline, without tying up the other threads.

Titanics is certainly not a neat novel. But it is gripping, often beautiful, deals with a burning sociopolitical issue, and packages it all in a literary format which does justice to a subjectivity in desperate need of a louder voice. There are passages where Khaal manages a properly mythical feeling to the experience, with powerful imagery and metaphor on par with that of the finest literary craftsmen. It tells us, and confidently so, that migration gives stories worth telling – which might make for great literature, too.

The danger here would be to start seeing Khaal’s work as the definitive “illegal migrant” experience. But the novel itself defies this sort of appropriation – not least because of its slippage between segments of explicit realism (Abdar’s narrative, basically: the desert journeys, border crossings, illicit stays in refugee ‘hostels’ and so on) and the parallel tales from other characters: experiences recounted in the same manner as Abdar’s, but also poetry and folk-tale-like narratives that refuse to be grounded in one particular context. One only wishes it could all have been tied up together a little tighter in the end.

Verdict: recommended.

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