The Optician of Lampedusa is a 2016 novella by BBC journalist Emma Jane Kirby, based on the events of the October 2013 disaster when a trafficking boat carrying more than 500 Eritrean and Somali men, women, and children sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa, with the loss of over 360 lives.
Deeply moving, throughout, and at times harrowing, it is beautifully written, combining meticulous attention to detail with genuine warmth for the lives portrayed, lives caught up in something too big to comprehend.
I do not intend to write a synopsis, or even a review as such, but rather to draw attention to key motifs that resonate with me as a pupil of the Bible. These are the wind; the waves; and religious belief and unbelief.
The motif of wind encompasses everything from the gentlest stirring of the air; through a breeze that drives before it relatively small, unsecured items such as plastic chairs or watering cans; to strong winds that mark a change in the seasons, and whip up the surface of the sea. The wind is also mirrored by human breath: life-giving; fought-for; found to fall short, in the terrors of the night.
In the Bible, ‘wind’ and ‘breath’ are images that speak of God’s life-giving Spirit, as well as the sheer dependency of human beings, whose life is fleeting.
In The Optician of Lampedusa, the motif of wind carries ideas of God delighting in sustaining life in a marginal ecology (Lampedusa has no water source, other than occasional rain); inviting us to recognise the ‘other,’ the stranger; drawing attention to the ways in which we have spoiled paradise; steering human action (if there had been indication of a stronger wind, the Galata would not have set out, and the forty-seven lives her crew saved would have been lost along with the others); and holding back death, along with the continual struggle between death and life. Whenever and wherever it blows, the wind is gracious; even if it is not always welcome.
The motif of waves encompasses both the outer turmoil of the sea, where lives are lost and from which lives are pulled; and the inner turmoil of those who are caught up in the rescue – and, subsequently, the recovery – operation. Like the wind, the waves are described in various strengths. The central character, the titular optician, is presented to us as a man whose inner life is a constant attempt to calm the waves of chaos that will overwhelm life is not carefully anticipated and kept in check.
In the Bible, the waves represent those gods – the created spiritual beings we have come to label angels and demons – in rebellion against the one creator God. Indeed, an understanding of this motif is common across the Ancient Near East. The Bible presents Yahweh as in genuine and recurring struggle with the Sea and various sea monsters that churn it up; while holding out his ‘steadfast love,’ faithfulness, and covenant promise as guarantee that Yahweh will always overcome. Among other things, the wind holding back the waters is central to both the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt and their entry into the land of Canaan; while Jesus both calms waves, by the breath of his command, and walks on water.
Whether satisfying or not, this story, which runs through the Bible from beginning to end, is offered to make sense of the world as a place that is both beautiful and terrifying; and to hold out hope and trust, rather than despair, as the appropriate response.
In The Optician of Lampedusa, the motif of waves also represents both the seemingly endless tide of humanity desperately trying to cross from Africa to Europe; and the utter failure of Europe to respond. We are drowning, together. The soothing rhythm of gentle waves lull us into a false security, before showing their true and merciless power.
Religious belief and unbelief
Throughout the novella, the motif of religious belief and unbelief runs as a current beneath the surface. The Italian friends who find themselves unlikely heroes are characterised by unbelief: the optician himself does not believe, and does not know whether his closest friends believe or not, which would suggest that belief is not of any importance to them. Neighbours motivated by religious belief are curiosities, well-meaning inconveniences. In contrast, the surviving Africans (and, by implication, those who did not survive also) are characterised as holding fast to Eritrean Catholic belief.
Here we have an exploration of belief – for unbelief is itself a belief-position – that is nuanced and influenced by the wind and the waves. Here is no black-and-white suggestion that the religious are ‘good’ and the irreligious ‘evil’ – or vice versa – but a complex recognition that human beings, regardless of belief, are capable of both good and evil: indeed, not only capable in theory, but responsible for both good and evil in practice. The question regarding contrasting beliefs, then, is simply: how does what I believe equip me to navigate life in this world?
What is interesting is this. The optician’s lack of faith does not prevent him from standing up against the raging sea; but it is called, deeply, into question by the experience. Not that he undergoes a dramatic conversion, but subtle, irresistible movement. And the Eritreans’ faith does not prevent them from disaster, or protect them from tragedy; but it holds fast against all the odds. Though they, too, are not unchanged.
In the Bible, we see humanity charged by God to exercise power and authority over the gods who would destroy life. This is the first mandate, the essential human calling. According to this story, the humans were tricked into letting go, but God would not let go his grip on them. Initially through representative individuals, and one particular people from among all the peoples; and ultimately through Jesus; the human mandate was never fully lost and was in time restored.
In The Optician of Lampedusa, we see humanity exercising power and authority over the gods. We see human beings being truly human. Unbelieving Italians, regardless of their unbelief. And believing Eritreans, regardless of – or, indeed, through - the utter powerlessness of their circumstances. Their connection is even described as a baptism: as a dying and rising to a new life; a new world being birthed in the midst of a dying – a drowning – one. The Italians baptise the Eritreans. And, in opening the eyes of their rescuers, the Eritreans baptise the Italians, into a common humanity, re-born of God.
It is, of course, only a beginning. Always a beginning. The wind sweeping across the surface of the waves, and bringing life out of death.
The Optician of Lampedusa is available at high street bookseller Waterstones, at £9.99. For every copy sold, Waterstones is donating £5 to Oxfam in support of their work with refugees.