If you read The Economist, no doubt you have read J. M. Ledgard’s unsigned reports from East Africa. He’s the newspaper’s correspondent in Nairobi, but he’s also a skilled novelist. His earlier novel, Giraffe, was about the slaughter of forty-nine giraffes in a Communist Czechoslovikia Zoo. Before East Africa, Ledgard was a correspondent in Eastern Europe. No surprise, then, that much of his second novel, Submergence, is set in East Africa, specifically Somalia, where the author has spent meaningful time, talking to clandestine operatives from the West as well as jihadists who play a major part in his story. There’s also a parallel story set in Europe (significantly near Greenland) involving an oceanographist.
The novel’s two threads are drawn together by an earlier love affair of the main characters (James More, a descendant of Sir Thomas More, in East Africa; and Danny Flinders, a biomathematician, in Europe, preparing for a dive in a submersible to one of the remotest areas of the ocean’s floor.) If this sounds like a bit of a stretch, forget that immediately. Ledgard’s novel is an erudite exploration of going down in space—not only into the watery depths of the unknown but also into equally fraught human relationships on land and man’s longing and capacity for sustaining love. As Danny muses at the beginning of her affair with James, “Life is never neat, it is made up of doors and trapdoors. You move down baroque corridors, and even when you think you know which door to open, you still need to have the courage to choose.”
James’s situation in Somalia involves plenty of courage but no choice at all. He’s an English intelligence operative, who’s been using water for his cover, that is, sustainable water for developing areas. As the novel begins, he’s locked in a tiny, fetid cell which appears to have once been a shower, though no water comes through the pipe. He’s been taken by jihadists who assume he’s a spy, though they have no precise evidence, so he’s dragged along with them as they move from camp to remote camp. The jihadists (or, perhaps more accurately wannabe jihadists) are a motley group—high or rhetoric and low on expertise. Still, they scare him with a mock execution, soon after they capture him, staged in the sea—an ironic counterpoint to Danny’s own work in the depths of the oceans.
Ledgard is wont to pontificate but in an ironic way, capturing the jihidists’ naïve worldview: “The strategy of the jihadists allied to al-Qaeda in Somalia is to create chaos in order to establish a supreme Islamic nation pure in its religion: a caliphate of Greater Somalia at the forefront of the global jihad. Local and foreign fighters will strike at Christian Ethiopia and Kenya, seeking to liberate the Muslims in those countries, thereby dragging America, Europe and the other Crusaders into the fray. The goal of the global jihad is to replicate itself through force of arms, creating a Muslim superstate: intercontinental, without borders, adjudged by the same laws and united by prayer.”
Good luck. At one camp, Yusuf, the leader of the group, who excoriates American movies, makes an exception for classic Disney films, especially Bambi. He stands up and tells the others that they should identify with the fawn. “The Crusaders were man. The forest was the mangrove in which the believers were safe. It did not trouble Yusuf that they were watching an American narrative. To him, it was pure. It had religious worth.” There are also uplifting video games, “including one where you got to fight Christians in the sixth-century Holy Land.” Somewhat later, after months at a remote camp without enough food, James will observe, “They had ambitions of dominion, but they could not feed themselves. They were like the hyenas in an African story who stack themselves up into the sky, one atop another, because they had been told the moon was a sweetmeat they could reach up and eat.”
Danny’s world is equally fraught with danger, “concentrated on the estimation of microbial life in the deepest layer” of the ocean. “She was bound for the largest uncharted hydrothermal vent field in the world, far below the plunging icebergs and the blue-black top, in a part of the Hadal deep whose unlit clock ticked at an incalculably slower speed.” The depths are oozing with microbial life, most of it unidentified, of great potential for future medicine. But the risks of the descent are overwhelming, enough to make the most hearty scientist think twice.
Ledgard his done his homework, consulted authorities at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at Columbia University and in Europe. The passages describing Danny’s descent are lyrical, detailed with beauty and apprehension. Moreover, the parallel stories are linked by recurring images—especially of water—and, of course, the passion that James and Danny share for one another. The result? A strangely haunting love story, leaping across geographical distances, careers, geopolitics—replete with interesting factoids and details of each character’s idiosyncrasies and fears, a rare work of beauty in the face of such risk and terror.
J. M. Ledgard: Submergence
Coffee House Press, 218 pp., $15.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.