[16 July 2008]

By Jeffrey White

Laurent Gaudé’s new novel on illegal immigration in Europe, Eldorado, is a page-turner – but not, sadly, in the conventional sense.

Rather, those readers who vow on principle to finish any book they crack, no matter what, will indeed find themselves frantically flipping just to get these 268 pages over with. Those less determined will simply move on and rather early, when quickly realizing that nothing really happens in this novel.  Which is strange, because there is a lot of effort to make it seem like something is happening in this novel: Patterson-quick chapters; cliffhanging passages; the tired technique of dual storylines, told in different tenses and by different narrators.

Eldorado, which concerns itself a lot with the sea, ultimately drifts, rudderless under the weight of its own staid descriptions, its trapped characters never fully come into view as they’re blanketed like fog in a hackneyed description and clumsy narration: “She had been hardened by a succession of endless hardships.”  That, along with dialogue that never, well, sounds real.

Case in point: Suleiman and Jamal, Sudanese brothers, discuss their upcoming journey north to find their way to Europe. Suleiman realizes that wherever they’ll end up won’t belong to them or their future children, but perhaps their grandchildren. Jamal concurs, saying:

The hardest part doesn’t affect us. We can always say we wanted this. We’ll always remember what we left behind. The sunshine of happy days will warm our hearts, and the memories of all the horrors will spare us any regrets. But our children, you’re right, our children won’t have those defenses. So, yes, we have to hope our grandchildren will be strong as lions and full of determination.

Folks, people just don’t talk like that, no matter their language. And the book is full of such long-winded monologues.

Eldorado tells two alternating stories. The first concerns Salvatore Piracci, a 20-year-veteran of the Italian coast guard whose job is to intercept illegal immigrants trying to make it to Europe from North Africa and the Middle East. Often they are found on derelict vessels, clinging to life after being left to die at sea by their “guides” (smugglers).

Soon after intercepting a boat full of immigrants from Libya, Piracci is confronted by the only English speaker among them who steals away to Piracci’s private quarters and attempts to bribe Piracci to let him escape. Piracci refuses, and is suddenly struck down with guilt in a bit of soul-searching that feels forced. He’s a gatekeeper. But really, who is he to determine who gets in and who doesn’t? Isn’t there something admirable about the determination of these people who risk all manners of horrors for the perceived honey at the end of the road?

As Piracci comes to terms with, then abandons, his profession, the reader is following a second storyline involving Suleiman who, with his brother, has saved enough money to buy his way to Europe. The two set off for Libya where they’ll meet their “transporters”. But Suleiman’s brother balks at the last minute – his health isn’t up to the journey – and the boy must go alone. He endures hold-ups, crammed cattle cars, and many long, terrifying nights.

Piracci and Suleiman will of course cross paths, and in a hard to predict way. Gaudé pulls this moment off skillfully, and the reader this far along – pretty much the end of the book – nods at the scene’s understated execution.  Still, this is the kind of book that demands to be character driven. This is the kind of topic that needs to be humanized.

Gaudé never fully develops Piracci or Suleiman, or makes clear their values and motives, so their actions never come as a surprise. The reader is always told, never shown. Who is this Piracci guy? Just a salty dog, holed up in a Sicilian port town, partial to late night boozing, a slave to a convenient crisis of conviction. 

And why is Suleiman fleeing his homeland? The reader doesn’t know. Suleiman is drawn a little fuller (his love for his brother is obvious, and drives him), but his narration is cloying and, worse, indecisive. His emotions rise and fall like choppy seas: he loathes himself, wait he loves himself; he is weak, wait, he feels strong.

The novel is peopled with some supporting roles, but these characters are even more opaque.

When the book picks up steam it is usually thanks to a device, of the plot-wheel variety. Piracci just happens to be apprehended by an immigrant smuggler after landing in Libya.  And I won’t even mention the pat fate that awates Piracci at the novel’s end (you’ve probably already guessed).

Indeed, Eldorado reveals everything through narrative, and nothing through character – and the narrative often evokes a monotonous voyage at sea. That’s a surprise, given that Gaudé’s past novels have received some of France’s highest literary prizes.

But here he squanders an opportunity, as illegal immigration in Europe is in the forefront of today’s news. On the day this book was published, the European Union passed tough new laws to deal with illegal immigrants, including an increase in the length during which they can be held before being deported.

Eldorado tries to capitalize on this topicality, but ends up being merely a pedestrian effort to put a face on the faceless multitudes who wash up on Europe’s shores each year.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/eldorado/