Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé (2006) Translated by Adriana Hunter. Original French title : Eldorado
Eldorado opens on the streets of Catania, Sicily. Captain Salvatore Piracci is in the Italian navy and he commands the Zeffiro. He spends his time between Catania and Lampedusa, protecting European borders and rescuing immigrants who arrive to the coasts of Sicily. He’s on leave, going home after a walk at the fish market when he realizes someone is following him. A woman says that she wants to talk to him. He lets her in his apartment and she reminds him that he rescued her two years before. She was on a boat coming from Beirut. The smugglers’ crew had embarked migrants in Beirut and had left the boat on lifeboats, condemning the migrants to a sure death. The Italian navy had found them and Captain Piracci had seen her off the ship. She remembered him when she saw him by chance in Catania. She wants him to give her his gun because she wants to go to Syria and kill the person who got the migrants’ money, chartered this ship and gave the crew the order to leave. Piracci relents and gives her his gun. He won’t be the same after this encounter and will start questioning his mission and his role in the whole immigration flux.
In parallel to Piracci, we get acquainted with Soleiman who lives in Sudan. His brother Jamal has arranged for them to leave Port-Sudan to go to Europe. We will follow his journey.
Eldorado is a powerful book. It shows two sides of the illegal immigrants coming to Europe. With Piracci, we see the exhaustion of the Sicilian people confronted with misery and death on a daily basis. The cemetery in Lampedusa is not big enough to bury all the corpses that are found in the sea or on the beaches. Piracci isn’t in an enviable position: on the one hand, he rescues people, snatches them from the sea and on the other hand, he gives them to the police to have them put in camps. The repetition of the job weighs on him and the woman’s request sets him off and pushes him to change his life.
With Soleiman, we see the desperation of the migrant. Laurent Gaudé describes the heartbreak of leaving one’s life behind to jump into the unknown. Here’s Soleiman with his brother Jamal before they leave their hometown:
|Je contemple mon frère qui regarde la place. Le soleil se couche doucement. J’ai vingt-cinq ans. Le reste de ma vie va se dérouler dans un lieu dont je ne sais rien, que je ne connais pas et que je ne choisirai peut-être même pas. Nous allons laisser derrière nous la tombe de nos ancêtres. Nous allons laisser notre nom, ce beau nom qui fait que nous sommes ici des gens que l’on respecte. Parce que le quartier connaît l’histoire de notre famille. Il est encore dans ces rues des vieillards qui connurent nos grands-parents. Nous laisserons ce nom ici, accroché aux branches des arbres comme un vêtement d’enfant abandonné que personne ne vient réclamer. Là où irons nous ne serons rien. Des pauvres. Sans histoire. Sans argent.||I gaze at my brother who stares at the plaza. The sun sets down slowly. I am twenty-five years old. I will live the rest of my life in a place I know nothing about and that I may not even choose. We are going to leave our ancestors’ graves behind. We are going to leave our name, this beautiful name that makes of us persons that people respect here. Because the neighborhood knows our family’s story. On the streets, there are still old men who knew our grandparents. We will leave our name here, hung to the tree branches like a child clothe that was abandoned and that nobody came to claim. Where we go, we’ll be nothing. Poor people. Without history. Penniless.|
They know their life is a sacrifice and still think it’s worth trying, not for them, not even for their children but for their grandchildren.
|Nous n’aurons pas la vie que nous méritons, dis-je à voix basse. Tu le sais comme moi. Et nos enfants, Jamal, nos enfants ne seront nés nulle part. Fils d’immigrés là où nous irons. Ignorant tout de leur pays. Leur vie aussi sera brûlée. Mais leurs enfants à eux seront saufs. Je le sais. C’est ainsi. Il faut trois générations. Les enfants de nos enfants naîtront là-bas chez eux. Ils auront l’appétit que nous leur auront transmis et l’habileté qui nous manquait. Cela me va. Je demande juste au ciel de me laisser voir nos petits-enfants.||We won’t live the life we deserve, I said in a low voice. You know it as well as I do. And our children, Jamal, our children will be born nowhere. Immigrants’ children where we’ll be. Ignorant of their country. Their life will be burnt too. But their children will be safe. I know it. This is how it is. It takes three generations. Our children’s children will be home in that country. They will have the appetite we’ll pass on to them and the skills that we lacked. I’m OK with it. I just ask God to let me see our grand-children.|
Through Piracci, the woman and Soleiman, we see the horror of the trafficking behind the journeys and the different ways the smugglers take advantage of the migrants. We see the horror of the journey and the determination and hope in the migrants’ eyes.
Gaudé questions the toll that this takes on the migrants and how they change during their trip from their country to the doors of Europe. But he also depicts the toll it takes on the Sicilians.
Gaudé’s prose is magnificent. I read his novel in French and I can only hope that my translations did him justice. The English translator is Adriana Hunter and I remember other bloggers praising her translations. So, the English version should be good. Gaudé’s style is simple and heartbreaking. Short sentences that convey well the person’s mind and their surroundings. There’s no pathos and yet the emotion is real. He’s not angry or protesting, he makes you go down from the impersonal version you read in papers or hear on the radio to show you this issue on a human level. I read this tucked in a lounge chair on my terrace on this sunny spring day. Safe and healthy. Lucky. Gaudé took me by the hand and seemed to tell me “Look, this could be you in their place. You were only born in France by accident. How would you survive this? What scars would it etch on you?”
I have read Eldorado in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down. Literature has no political power. She only has the power to expand the reader’s humanity, to let them experience things and feelings that are foreign to their daily existence. Political power in not in literature, it’s in the reader’s hands. I thought about all the people voted or are tempted to vote for a party or a politician who advocates an inward-looking and racist attitude. I wish that all these people read this luminous novel. I believe that after reading Eldorado, if these readers have in an ounce of compassion for other human beings, they will be ashamed of their past or future ballot paper. That’s where literature’s power lays.
PS: This is the second time I’ve read a book by Laurent Gaudé. The first one was Sous le soleil des Scorta, and you can read my billet here. Eldorado didn’t win the Prix Goncourt but that’s probably just because Laurent Gaudé had already won it with Sous le soleil des Scorta and a writer can’t win the Prix Goncourt twice.
Le soleil des Scorta by Laurent Gaudé. (281 pages) Translated into English as The House of Scorta (US) or The Scorta’s Sun (UK), which is the exact translation of the French title.
|La chaleur du soleil semblait fendre la terre. Pas un souffle de vent ne faisait frémir les oliviers. Tout était immobile. Le parfum des collines s’était évanoui. La pierre gémissait de chaleur. Le mois d’août pesait sur le massif du Gargano avec l’assurance d’un seigneur. Il était impossible de croire qu’en ces terres, un jour, il avait pu pleuvoir. Que l’eau ait irrigué les champs et abreuvé les oliviers. Impossible de croire qu’une vie animale ou végétale ait pu trouver – sous ce ciel sec – de quoi se nourrir. Il était deux heures de l’après-midi, et la terre était condamnée à brûler.||The heat of the sun seemed to crack the earth. Not a breath of air made the olive trees rustle. All was still. The scent of the hills had vanished. Stones moaned with heat. August weighed on the Gargano mountains with the haughtiness of a lord. It was impossible to believe that on these lands, it once had rained. That water had irrigated the fields and flooded the olive trees. Impossible to believe that any animal or plant life could have found some nourishment under this dry sky. It was 2pm and the earth was condemned to burn.|
These are the opening lines of Le soleil des Scorta by Laurent Gaudé. I don’t know if I managed to translate it well enough, but in French, I can feel the heat weighing on my shoulders, crumbling any will to do anything.
In 1875, in the South of Italy, Luciano Mascalzone comes back to Montepuccio after 15 years in jail. He deliberately goes to one particular house, where a woman named Filomena lives. He’s been dreaming of making love to her for 15 years. Yet he knows that as soon as he’s done, the villagers will kill him. Rocco Scorta Mascalzone’s birth will be the tangible consequence of this fleeting embrace. Rocco is the first Scorta and violence is the fairy upon his filthy and poor craddle.
Saved from a cruel death by the priest don Giorgio, Rocco will live from robberies, terrifying the whole area with his violent raids. Rich from these extortions, he comes back to Montepuccio and settles in a house outside of the village, gets married and has three children, Giuseppe, Domenico and Carmela. When he dies, he makes a deal with Don Giorgio: all his money goes to the Church provided that all the Scortas’ funerals are grandiose.
This sort of whim leaves his children with nothing. The three siblings are poor, more than poor. They are shipped to New York and come back with enough money to start a business. It will be a tobacconist’s shop. They won’t leave Montepuccio again.
The Scorta are a bit crazy and outcasts, like their ancestor Rocco. They stick together, living of nothing, earning what they own with their sweat. Their pride and their love of family is all they have. They work, they marry, they have children, they get old, they die. Lives among millions of small lives that make most of this world.
Laurent Gaudé describes the life of this family with poetry and respect for his characters. Chapters alternate between the narration and Carmela’s voice confiding the family history and secrets to another priest, don Salvatore, the saviour. He will have to pass on the story to Anna, her grand-daughter. It’s the history of the place, with its customs, its pasta and olive oil, its superstitions. Through this family, it’s the story of Montepuccio that the reader discovers. Time goes by, the village changes, Mussolini is on power, the war doesn’t come to them, tourists discover the region.
I can’t find the English words to give you back the sun reverberating from this book. I was terribly moved and I find it really cinematographic. I could see the place, the people and I wish someone makes it into a film. I enjoyed the landscapes, the love of these people for their land, their slow and silent way of enjoying life despite their difficult conditions of living. It’s about family intangible inheritance, that thing that is different from one family to another and makes it difficult to adapt to your in-laws sometimes. Somehow it echoed with great-uncles loudly playing cards, Saturdays’ traditional pasta and a grand-mother praying St Antony of Padoua any time she loses something. It echoes with what it is to be a loving family.
|Et Donato était la seule personne à qui Elia pouvait parler de son enfance en sachant qu’il serait compris. L’odeur de tomates séchées chez la tante Mattea. Les aubergines farcies de la tante Maria. Les bagarres aux jets de pierres avec les gamins des quatiers voisins. Donato avait vécu tout cela, comme lui. Il pouvait se souvenir avec la même précision que lui et la même nostalgie de ces années lointaines.||And Donato was the only person to whom Elia could talk about his childhood knowing he would be understood. The smell of dried tomatoes at Aunt Mattea’s. The stuffed egg-plants at Aunt Maria’s. The stone fights against the boys from the next neighbourhood. Donato had lived through this, like him. He could remember these years long time gone with the same precision and the same nostalgia.|
Isn’t this what brothers and sisters are about?