I was given The Optician of Lampedusa as a Christmas gift this yea. Having recently waded through Schindler’s Ark and Rebecca (both quite long for me at 429 and 441 pages, judge all you like) I was keen for something a little briefer. Train-journey length, ideally. At just 117 pages, The Optician of Lampedusa was an ideal candidate.
It’s a journalistic novel, based on real events but with fictionalised details. Emma Jane Kirby is an award-winning journalist from the BBC who has worked on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean before, although not (as far as I am aware) in this style or format.
The story follows a group of friends on Lampedusa, an Italian island about halfway between Tunisia and Sicily. At the end of the tourist season, in early October, these friends join together to take a boat trip, a little holiday and a break from work. This is something they do every year and it’s clear that the group know each other well.
The Optician is the character we follow most closely. The novel is told in the third person, but it’s very much through his eyes; we see his experiences, hear about his concern for his wife and family, read about how he interacts with his friends and the emotions he feels. While the other characters are given names, the optician is always just The Optician, smoothly turning a real person, who does exist in real life, into an everyman.
After an uneventful evening on the boat, the group wake up to hear seagulls screaming. Then they realise that the screaming is not seagulls, but people. An unseaworthy boat, packed with migrants from North Africa, has sunk and hundreds of people are in the water. The optician and his friends manage to pull 47 of them onto the boat, frantically calling the coastguard as they go and dressing the naked survivors in any scrap of fabric they can find. At 47 the boat made for 10 really can handle no more and they are sent back to land by the coastguard.
Of course, with hundreds in the water, it’s impossible to not feel guilty about those they could not save, as heroic as the rescuers may be. It’s impossible to not feel furious about Italy’s failure to do more to prevent these tragedies, not to mention the failure of the rest of Europe. The statistics we read about in the newspapers every few months (or weeks) are made horribly real for The Optician and his friends and, by extension, for the reader.
I think this is an important book. It’s certainly very moving. I think it’s too easy to become complacent about this kind of crisis especially in these days of information overload when anything that’s been happening for more than a few days no longer counts as news. We lose sight of everything that’s happening and we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t be allowed to.