Two boys: one Libyan, one Sicilian, facing each other from opposite sides of the same sea. A romantic idea with the promise of something to chew on as well: on one hand an exploration of the remnants of Italy’s colonial past; on the other a reflection on the refugee crisis at Europe’s borders. Unfortunately the scantily developed plot does not allow Morning Sea to live up to its promise.
Farid is a Bedouin fleeing the Libyan unrest with his mother. War comes to his oasis village and kills his father so his mother decides to leave for Europe. She has family there, and plans for a new and more secure life. They join a party trekking across the desert to the port; and then pay an exorbitant amount to traffickers to get on a rickety boat bound for Italy. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Vito is a disaffected Italian youth: about to graduate, lacking opportunities for the future. He gets his kicks by reckless driving and bad behaviour in nightclubs, and spends his days building a collection of debris from the wrecks of immigrant boats which wash up on Sicily’s shores.
In fact Vito’s mother Angelina’s story gets most of the airtime, as the vehicle for a potted (if somewhat Italo-centric) history of Italy’s colonial adventures in Libya. Born to Italian parents arrived in Libya as children, Angelina and her family are forced to leave the country following Ghadaffi’s coup, shipped back to a Sicily which no longer recognises them as compatriots.
Morning Sea is full of the kind of short, plain sentences which work better in Italian but come over a bit simplistic in English (not helped by what reads like a rather half-hearted translation). This is Mazzantini’s seventh novel, and seems to be aiming for the literary / commercial crossover which is apparently enjoying some success at the moment. But unlike 2001’s Don’t Move, an affecting psychological study of a father at a crisis point, Morning Sea barely scratches the surface of either its subject or its characters. However my biggest source of dissatisfaction as a reader was the way it lurches disjointedly from theme to theme. Sometimes this is poetic, at others it feels like there are just a few too many gaps to fill.
“Before going back to their hotel, they wandered around the souk. Copper artisans, red henna, black dates, spices. Now they really were torn and wandering souls. Angelina, tinted blue by the veil she’d bought to go into Dorghut Mosque, allowed the crowd to drag her along, beat her like a rag.
Only then did Vito understand what his nonno had meant when he said, The story of man is the story of hunger. Hungry people moving around. The hunger of the poor, colonists, refugees. And the greedy hunger of the powerful.
Vito stuffed himself with spicy couscous.”
More context would definitely not go amiss here. Morning Sea is a slim volume and surely could have afforded a bit more padding.
Any Cop?: Interesting topic, and reading for entertainment you could do a lot worse, but if (as I was, and maybe unfairly) you’re hoping for some nuanced treatment of these weighty issues you won’t get it here.