Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”

Toward the end of the tourist season in 2013, the Optician of Lampedusa (the only one on island), his wife, and three other couples ventured out in one of the party’s small boats for a brief holiday. The Optician had lived on the island for about twenty years and watched the increasing number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East appear on the streets, having reached the island after perilous trips over the water. He had never paid much attention to them, nor considered them his problem. They simply came and went, using Lampedusa as their point of entry into Europe.

The morning of October 3rd, the Optician was the first of their party to awaken, so he fixed himself a cup of coffee and went up on deck—still before daylight. Almost immediately, he heard strange noises in the distance: “The howl mutated into an unbearable screeching.” Soon, his wife and the six other occupants of the ship were on deck. Quickly thereafter “The ocean reverberated with…screaming, the terrible sound bouncing off of and coming from under the water, gargling and rapturing. The Optician recognized the screams as the music of the dying, the final dirges of the drowning. In the chorus of voices he could pick out each individual soloist. Everyone was begging to be noticed.” He asked himself how he could save them all. There was only one life preserver on the boat, and dozens of hands extended from the water, all seeking help. Then another terrible thought: the Optician “understood that they would have to choose who would live and who would die.”

The first person pulled from the water was hardly more than a boy, completely naked, his skin oily. “He’d wanted to hold the adolescent, hug him,” the way he had hugged his own sons. The boy tried to cover his nakedness, embarrassed in spite of vomiting and shaking. Soon he pulled on a t-shirt thrown to him and wore it like a diaper. When the people on the deck asked how many there were, the boy used his fingers to respond: 500. Then he optricianlampedusaadded a plus sign. Some of the refugees being pulled abroad could respond in simple English to their questions. Were there any children? Yes, “There are many children.” Any women? Yes, the same response, though only men had been pulled on board.

Soon there were so many on deck that the little pleasure boat was low in the water and beginning to tilt. All the people pulled from the water were naked and needed something to wear, to hide their shame. First clothing, then makeshift items such as towels and curtains were used to cover them. The Coast Guard had been called as soon as the crisis was understood, but assistance was long in arriving. It wasn’t long before the little boat had fifty-five people on it: the eight vacationers and forty-seven refuses. But no children, and only one woman. Then, the Coast Guard finally arrived and told them to stop dragging people from the water, even though the Coast Guard did not appear to be rescuing any of the others still in the water. Everyone on the vacationers’ boat was exhausted, though finally they made it to the shore (ironically, only about a kilometer from the shipwreck).

The harrowing event did not end with the land. The Optician felt immediate guilt and then anger that they hadn’t been able to save more lives. “He felt helpless. He had no common language with which he could reassure these desperate people and even if he did, he thought bitterly, what could he tell them? That it would be OK and that they would all live happily ever after? He had no idea what the procedure was; he had no clue what was about to happen to them now.” Ditto all the earlier refugees he had observed on the island. He had never cared a bit about their fate.

That evening when he and his friends return to the center where the survivors are being detailed, he learns that another boat—before theirs—had refused to rescue the “swimmers” after their shipwreck. Other stories are reported to them. Many of the bodies recovered from the hull of the sunken ship were holding hands with others. When he subsequently encounters the gravedigger whose duty it is to bury them, the man asks the Optician, “Why does Europe do the minimum possible to stop this?” which is the core of the issue behind Emma Jane Kirby’s disturbing masterpiece, based on what she observed as a reporter in the area when this horrible event unfolded.

The day after, divers were still pulling bodies out of the water, finally totaling 368 corpses though others were never found. And then a curious time begins. The Optician, his wife, and six friends suffer from various aspects of survivor guilt: insomnia, anger, depression, panic attacks, and distraction. Other islanders (who did not participate in the rescue) become increasingly racist, anti-immigrant. Other details reflecting the responses from the community are even more unsettling. A local fisherman quits his job because of “the fear of what he might find in his nets when he pulled them up.”

In spite of its horror, Emma Jane Kirby’s The Optician of Lampedusa is a magical book, but also dangerous, so riveting in its telling of the rescue that you may find yourself gripping the pages as you turn them. Appropriately, the book comes unannounced with no hype; yet what the book asks is the worrisome question we seem unwilling to ask about so many events in the world today. When is enough enough? Have we lost our humanity completely?

Read this unforgettable book. Rush out and get a copy.

Emma Jane Kirby: The Optician of Lampedusa
Or Books, 182 pp., $17


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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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