Notes on a Shipwreck

On Lampedusa, history is never far from the islanders’ thoughts, and they are preoccupied by its contradictions. Is Lampedusa a stop on a long journey, or is it a graveyard? Does every fence need a hole in it?

Davide Enia | translated by Antony Shuggar | an excerpt adapted from Notes on a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope | Other Press | February 2019 | 16 minutes (4,334 words)

On Lampedusa, a fisherman once asked me: “You know what fish has come back? Sea bass.”

Then he’d lit a cigarette and smoked the whole thing down to the butt in silence.

“And you know why sea bass have come back to this stretch of sea? You know what they eat? That’s right.”

And he’d stubbed out his cigarette and turned to go.

There was nothing more, truly, to be said.

What had stuck with me about Lampedusa were the calluses on the hands of the fishermen; the stories they told of constantly finding dead bodies when they hauled in their nets (“What do you mean, ‘constantly’?” and they’d say, “Do you know what ‘constantly’ means? Constantly”); scattered refugee boats rusting in the sunlight, perhaps nowadays the only honest form of testimony left to us — corrosion, grime, rust — of what’s happening in this period of history; the islanders’ doubts about the meaning of it all; the word “landing,” misused for years, because by now these were all genuine rescues, with the refugee boats escorted into port and the poor devils led off to the Temporary Settlement Center; and the Lampedusans who dressed them with their own clothing in a merciful response that sought neither spotlights nor publicity, but just because it was cold out and those were bodies in need of warmth.

*

Haze blurred our line of sight.

The horizon shimmered.

I noticed for what must have been the thousandth time how astonished I was to see how Lampedusa could unsettle its guests, creating in them an overwhelming sense of estrangement. The sky so close that it almost seemed about to collapse on top of us. The ever-present voice of the wind. The light that hits you from all directions. And before your eyes, always, the sea, the eternal crown of joy and thorns that surrounds everything. It’s an island on which the elements hammer at you with nothing able to stop them. There are no shelters. You’re pierced by the environment, riven by the light and the wind. No defense is possible.

It had been a long, long day.

I heard my father’s voice calling my name, while the sirocco tossed and tangled my thoughts.

*

I happened to meet the scuba diver at a friend’s house.

It was just the two of us.

The first, persistent sensation was this: He was huge.

His first words were these: “No tape recorders.”

He went over and sat down on the other side of the table from me and crossed his arms.

He kept them folded across his chest the whole time.

“I’m not talking about October third,” he added, his mouth snapping shut after these words in a way that defied argument.

His tone of voice was consistently low and measured, in sharp contrast with that imposing bulk. Sometimes, in his phrases, uttered with the sounds of his homeland — he was born in the mountains of the deepest north of Italy, where the sea is, more than anything else, an abstraction — there also surfaced words from my dialect, Sicilian. The ten years he’d spent in Sicily for work had left traces upon him. For an instant, the sounds of the south took possession of that gigantic body, dominating him. Then the moment would come to an end and he’d run out of things to say and just stare at me, in all his majesty, like a mountain of the north.

Before your eyes, always, the sea, the eternal crown of joy and thorns that surrounds everything.

He’d become a diver practically by sheer chance, a shot at a job that he’d jumped at immediately after completing his military service.

“We divers are used to dealing with death, from day one they told us it would be something we’d encounter. They tell us over and over, starting on the first day of training: People die at sea. And it’s true. All it takes is a single mistake during a dive and you die. Miscalculate and you die. Just expect too much of yourself and you die. Underwater, death is your constant companion, always.”

He’d been called to Lampedusa as a rescue swimmer, one of those men on the patrol boats who wear bright orange wetsuits and dive in during rescue operations.

He told me just how tough the scuba diving course had been, lingering on the mysterious beauty of being underwater, when the sea is so deep that sunlight can’t filter down that far and everything is dark and silent. The whole time he’d been on the island, he’d been doing special training to make sure he could perform his new job at an outstanding level.

He said: “I’m not a leftist. If anything, the complete opposite.”

His family, originally monarchists, had become Fascists. He, too, was in tune with those political ideas.

He added: “What we’re doing here is saving lives. At sea, every life is sacred. If someone needs help, we rescue them. There are no colors, no ethnic groups, no religions. That’s the law of the sea.”

Then, suddenly, he stared at me.

He was enormous even when he was sitting down. “When you rescue a child in the open sea and you hold him in your arms . . .”

And he started to cry, silently.

His arms were still folded across his chest.

I wondered what he could have seen, what he’d lived through, just how much death this giant across the table had faced off with.

After more than a minute of silence, words resurfaced in the room. He said that these people should never have set out for Italy in the first place, and that in Italy the government was doing a bad job of taking them in, wastefully and with a demented approach to issues of management. Then he reiterated the concept one more time: “At sea, you can’t even think about an alternative, every life is sacred, and you have to help anyone who is in need, period.” That phrase was more than a mantra. It was a full-fledged act of devotion.

He unfolded his words slowly, as if they were careful steps down the steep side of a mountain.

“The most dangerous situation is when there are many vessels close together. You have to take care not to get caught between them because, if the seas are rough, you could easily be crushed if there’s a collision. I was really in danger only once: There was a force-eight gale, I was in the water with my back to a refugee boat loaded down with people, and I saw the hull of our vessel coming straight at me, shoved along by a twenty-five-foot wave. I moved sideways with a furious lunge that I never would have believed I could pull off. The two hulls crashed together. People fell into the water. I started swimming to pick them up. When I returned from that mission, I still had the picture of that hull coming to crush me before my eyes. I sat there on the edge of the dock, alone, for several minutes, until I could get that sensation of narrowly averted death out of my mind.”

He explained that when you’re out on the open water, the minute you reach the point from where the call for help was launched, you invariably find some new and unfamiliar situation.

“Sometimes, everything purrs along smoothly, they’re calm and quiet, the sea isn’t choppy, it doesn’t take us long to get them all aboard our vessels. Sometimes, they get so worked up that there’s a good chance of the refugee boat overturning during the rescue operations. You always need to manage to calm them down. Always. That’s a top priority. Sometimes, when we show up on the scene, the refugee boat has just overturned, and there are bodies scattered everywhere. So, you have to work as quickly as you can. There is no standard protocol. You just decide what to do there and then. You can swim in a circle around groups of people, pulling a line to tie them together and reel them in, all at once. Sometimes, the sea is choppy and they’ll all sink beneath the waves right before your eyes. In those cases, all you can do is try to rescue as many as you can.”

I have the distinct sensation that I’m face-to-face with human beings who carry an entire graveyard inside them.

There followed a long pause, a pause that went on and on. His gaze no longer came to rest on the wall behind me. It went on, out to some spot on the Mediterranean Sea that he would never forget.

“If you’re face-to-face with three people going under and twenty-five feet farther on a mother is drowning with her child, what do you do? Where do you head? Who do you save first? The three guys who are closer to you, or the mother and her newborn who are farther away?”

It was a vast, boundless question.

It was as if time and space had curved back upon themselves, bringing him face-to-face with that cruel scene all over again.

The screams of the past still resonated.

He was enormous, that diver.

He looked invulnerable.

And yet, inside, he had to have been a latter-day Saint Sebastian, riddled with a quiverful of agonizing choices.

“The little boy is tiny, the mother extremely young. There they are, twenty-five feet away from me. And then, right here, in front of me, three other people are drowning. So, who should I save, then, if they’re all going under at the same instant? Who should I strike out for? What should I do? Calculate. It’s all you can do in certain situations. Mathematics. Three is bigger than two. Three lives are one more life than two lives.”

And he stopped talking.

Outside the sky was cloudy, there was a wind blowing out of the southwest, the sea was choppy. I thought to myself: Every time, every single time, I have the distinct sensation that I’m face-to-face with human beings who carry an entire graveyard inside them.

*

I tried calling my uncle Beppe, my father’s brother. We called each other pretty frequently. Often my uncle would ask me: “But why doesn’t my brother ever call me?” I’d answer: “He doesn’t even call me, and I’m his first-born son, Beppuzzo, it’s just the way he is.”

The phone rang and rang for more than a minute, with no answer.

I hung up and went back inside.

We ate dinner, tuna cooked in sweet-and-sour onions and a salad of fennel, orange slices, and smoked herring.

There were four of us sitting around the table: Paola, Melo, my father, and me.

We were at Cala Pisana, at Paola’s house. Paola is a friend of mine. She’s a lawyer who’s given up her practice and has lived on Lampedusa for years now. There, with her boyfriend Melo, she runs the bed and breakfast where I usually stay as my base of operations whenever I’m doing research on the island.

I was setting forth my considerations on that exceedingly long day, in a conversation with Paola. From time to time, Melo would nod, producing small sounds, monosyllabic at the very most. My father, on the other hand, made no sounds whatsoever. He was the silent guest. Patiently, with his gaze turned directly to the eyes of whoever was speaking, he displayed a considerable ability to listen that he’d developed in the forty-plus years he’d practiced his profession, cardiology. He invited people to tell him things just by the way he held his body.

I was considering out loud that everything happening on Lampedusa went well beyond shipwrecks, beyond a simple count of the survivors, beyond the list of the drowned.

“It’s something bigger than crossing the desert and even bigger than crossing the Mediterranean itself, to such a degree that this rocky island in the middle of the sea has become a symbol, powerful and yet at the same time elusive, a symbol that is studied and narrated in a vast array of languages: reporting, documentaries, short stories, films, biographies, postcolonial studies, and ethnographic research. Lampedusa itself is now a container-word: migration, borders, shipwrecks, human solidarity, tourism, summer season, marginal lives, miracles, heroism, desperation, heartbreak, death, rebirth, redemption, all of it there in a single name, in an impasto that still seems to defy a clear interpretation or a recognizable form.”

Lampedusa itself is now a container-word: migration, borders, shipwrecks, human solidarity, tourism, summer season, marginal lives, miracles, heroism, desperation, heartbreak, death, rebirth, redemption, all of it there in a single name.

Papà had remained silent the whole time. His blue eyes were a well of still water in whose depths you could read no judgment whatsoever.

Paola had just poured herself an espresso.

“Lampedusa is a container-word,” she repeated under her breath, nodding to herself more than to me.

She sugared her coffee and went on with her thoughts. “And in a container, sure enough, you can put anything you like.”

Little by little, with a gradual rising tone, her voice grew louder, and the pace of her words became increasingly relentless.

“In the container called Lampedusa, you really can fit everything and the opposite of everything. Take the Center where the young people are brought after they land. Do you remember? You saw it when you came back here the year after the Arab Spring.”

It was the summer of 2012 and I’d asked a few Lampedusan piccirìddi — kids — who I’d met on the beach: “Do you all ever go to the Center?” I was fantasizing about the idea that the structure where anyone who landed on Lampedusa was taken must somehow constitute a focus of enormous fascination for them. “E che ci ham’a iri a fare?” those children had replied in dialect. I was stunned to hear their answer: “Why on earth would we bother with that place?” I had been convinced, until that moment, that the presence of new arrivals must have generated a monstrous well of curiosity, becoming the sole topic of conversation, of play, of adventure. Something rooted in the epic dimension.

“Would you take me there?” I’d asked them, hesitantly, already anticipating my defeat.

“We’d rather die.”

There was nothing about the Center that appealed to them, it had never interested them. Only after I finally saw it did I understand that I had committed an enormous mistake: I’d interacted with the children but used the parameters of an adult. Along the road that leads to the Center, there was nothing but rocks, brushwood, and dry-laid stone walls upon which signs appeared here and there, reading for sale. The only form of life was a thunderous bedlam of crickets. It was an arid place. Of course the piccirìddi never went there, there was nothing fun to do, nowhere to play. Myths aren’t built out of nothing.


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The Center had been built from the ground up on the site of an old army barracks. A number of dormitory structures, an open plaza, an enclosure fence. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a prison.

“Has anything changed about the Center in the last few years?” I asked Paola.

“The name. At first it was called the Temporary Settlement Center, then the Center for Identification and Expulsion, and now it’s a Hot Spot Center, whatever that’s supposed to mean. The governments change, the names rotate, but the structure is always the same: Under normal conditions it can hold 250 people, in an emergency situation it could take in at the very most 381 full-time residents. Those are the numbers, you can’t increase the number of bathrooms, or, for that matter, the number of beds. And in 2011 more than two thousand people were packed in there, for days and days, without being told at all what was to become of them. The world applauded the Arab Spring, and then imprisoned its protagonists. Was this the best response we could provide to their demands? And do you know what you create by keeping too many people shut up in such a small space? Rage. That’s how you create wild animals. And, in fact, a revolt broke out; they burned their mattresses and set fire to one wing of the structure.”

My father listened impassively, even though — clearly listening, but remaining opaque, inscrutable — he had to be squirreling away all that information. Melo was chewing on his lower lip, Paola continued to talk without taking her eyes off the demitasse of espresso.

“The Center, at least on paper, is supposed to be a containment facility if nothing else, right? And in fact, there’s a hole in the fence around the Center. I think it dates back to that period in 2011, but I couldn’t rule out by any means that the hole was there even earlier. It’s a great big hole and it works as a pressure valve, in fact, allowing the young men to get out, take a walk, come into town to try to get in touch with their families by using the Internet through the generosity of a number of residents. And what are you going to do, if a little kid asks you to let him talk to his mother to let her know that he’s still alive? Tell him he can’t use your computer?”

She’d continued to stir her espresso, tiny spoon in little demitasse. The sound of steel rattling against porcelain had punctuated the cadence of her words, like a rhythmic counterpoint, necessary to keep from losing the thread, to keep from plummeting body and soul into an abyss of screaming.

“Believe me, Davidù, it’s a good thing that hole is there. It’s a door, a way of keeping them from feeling like caged animals. So, you see what the point is? The Center is a structure garrisoned by the police force, inside which no one can go without special authorization. Not even a priest can go in. The facade remains intact. But in the fence, there’s always been a hole. It’s a well-known fact and no one does anything about it. And it’s a good thing that no one does anything about it, let me say that for the thousandth time. Here is a concrete example of how closely emergency and hypocrisy have to coexist, bureaucracy and solidarity, common sense and cult of appearances. Lampedusa is a container of opposites, for real.”

History is sending people ahead, in flesh and blood, people of every age.

Through the open window came the roar of waves, water rising, tumbling, crashing down onto the sand, pouring back out, and starting over again, in an endless relaunching. Melo, seated at the head of the table, had consigned himself to silence, just like my father. Melo, too, spoke little if at all, the whole day through, at most a bare handful of words, often drawled out, because speaking costs effort and effort is a burden.

Paola sipped her coffee slowly, and it wasn’t until she’d finished it that she started talking again.

“It is History that’s taking place, Davidù. And History is complicated, a mosaic full of tiles of different shapes and sizes, sometimes similar, other times diametrically opposed, yet all of them necessary in order for the final picture to emerge. No, wait, let me correct myself: It’s not that History’s taking place now. It’s been taking place for twenty years.”

She started taking long drags on a cigarette, her third in half an hour.

“As you had an opportunity to understand yourself this morning, the scale of this event can be perceived immediately when you witness a landing. But even if someone never had a chance to witness one, what can you expect them to care about the history of your, my, our perceptions? History is already determining the course of the world, tracing out the future, structurally modifying the present. It’s an unstoppable movement. And this time, History is sending people ahead, in flesh and blood, people of every age. They set sail across the water, they land here. Lampedusa isn’t an exit, it’s a leg in a longer journey.”

She crushed her cigarette out in the ashtray while Melo poured himself what beer remained in the bottle. Through the open window, warm fall air pushed into the room, scented with hot sand and salt-sea brine.

*

In the days following the Arab Spring, mass arrivals had begun on the shores of Lampedusa. An island resident named Piera had happened to be down at Porto Nuovo, or New Port, to supervise the efforts of the town constables.

“I’ve still got the scene before my eyes, it was completely insane! So many people had landed that you couldn’t make your way through the port. They were everywhere, the wharf was packed and the vessels were coming in and landing, more people one right after the other. A procession of refugee boats! And they were coming ashore by the thousands! We were there to give them a hand, but we were hardly prepared for anything like those numbers. A carabiniere was telling all the new arrivals in French to move over to the hill to make room for the others, and in the meantime new boats were coming in from the sea, all of them packed to the gunwales, and there was just no time to move people aside before the new refugee boats had already landed more young people. I really couldn’t begin to guess how many thousands came in that afternoon, it was impossible to count them, seven thousand, eight thousand, nine thousand, there was no settled number. And how could we ever reckon that number? There were more of them than there were islanders on Lampedusa, that much is certain. The ones who were standing on the hill, as soon as the boats came in carrying their families — wives, husbands, children — would rush down to rejoin their loved ones. An incredibly crazy scene: The police would try to separate them and we were caught in the middle, knocked back and forth. You couldn’t figure out what was going on. And from the sea, boat after boat kept arriving, so many of them, in quick succession. A flotilla! No one had ever seen such a thing. There was a gentleman who arrived with a falcon on his arm. On another refugee boat, one young Tunisian had brought his own sheep. A lovely sheep! A breed of sheep I’d never seen in my life, spectacular. A thick coat of wool, very curly! Stupendous. But in the end, we had to put the animal down. There was no alternative.”

There were more foreigners than residents on Lampedusa, more than ten thousand refugees as compared to five thousand islanders. Fear and curiosity coexisted with mistrust and pity. The shutters remained fastened tight, or else they’d open to hand out sweaters and shoes, electric adapters to charge cell phones, glasses of water, a chair to sit on, and a seat at the table to break bread together. These were flesh-and-blood people, right there before our eyes, not statistics you read about in the newspapers or numbers shouted out over the television. And so, in a sort of overtime of aid and assistance, people found and distributed ponchos because it was raining out, or they cooked five pounds of pasta because those young people were hungry and hadn’t eaten in days.

Everyone had been abandoned to their own devices.

The following year, the Italian government proudly proclaimed the figure of “zero landings on Lampedusa” as if it were a medal of honor to be pinned to its chest.

“And it’s true,” Paola had assured me that summer in 2012. “No boats are landing here anymore. We didn’t even see any in the spring. And do you know why? When the refugee boats are intercepted they’re escorted all the way to Sicily, and that’s where the landings take place, far out of the spotlight. Which means: zero landings on Lampedusa. From a purely statistical point of view, the logic is impeccable. And yet, you see? The island is fragmented, in the throes of anxiety, tumbled and tossed in this media maelstrom, a hail of contradictions. People talk less and less and, when they do, it’s only to complain about concrete problems, such as the lack of a hospital, for instance, or the cost of gasoline, which here is the highest in all of Italy. And they point out, with a touch of bitterness, that all the attention is always focused on those who arrived over the water, while the everyday challenges that we residents face don’t really seem to matter to anyone, except to us.”

There was the vacation season, the real engine of the island’s economy, to get up and running.

From time to time, someone would shoot a furtive glance toward the horizon.

“Sooner or later, something will come back to these beaches,” a fisherman had told me. That prediction, shared by all the residents, came true the following year, on October 3, 2013. It was an event that outpaced even our wildest nightmares. A refugee boat overturned just a few hundred yards off the coast of the island, the waters filled up with corpses, and Lampedusa was overrun by coffins and television news crews. What had actually changed in the recent years, after all, were just the minor details. The corpses found in the fishing nets, for example, were simply tossed back into the sea in order to prevent the fishing boats from being confiscated and held in a subsequent investigation. The reports of alleged sinkings — alleged because the only sources were the words of those who had traveled on sister refugee boats — were only mentioned at the tail end of the newscasts. In the absence of a corpse, it’s always better to leave death confined to territories that everyone prefers not to explore. And yet, in the months that preceded the October tragedy, the everyday rescue work carried out by the Italian Coast Guard continued as always, people continued to trek across the Sahara, women continued to be raped in Libyan prisons, the refugee boats and the rubber dinghies set sail and were intercepted, or else they sank.

History certainly hadn’t stopped.

* * *

Davide Enia was born in 1974 in Palermo, Italy. He has written, directed, and performed in plays for the stage and for radio. Enia has been honored with the Ubu Prize, the Tondelli Award, and the ETI Award, Italy’s three most prestigious theater prizes. He lives and cooks in Rome.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky