Unfortunately, this is not simply a presentation of a book that has touched me, as it’d be easier for me in that case to describe my feelings while reading it, feelings that keep intensifying day by day, because of the issue at hand. I wrote ‘Unfortunately’, because this novel, “Women on the beach”, by Tove Alsterdal, deals with stories of such unbelievable horror, similar to those we see daily occupying the front lines in the news titles about ‘illegal’ immigrants. People desperately trying to escape the horror back home, who find themeselves faced with the horror of ‘civilised’ Europe. The ‘unfortunate event’, if I am permitted to call it so, is the unbearable truth that this book reveals, which, although a work of fiction, is based on the author’s thorough research on real events that are interwoven with the current nightmarish reality my brain refuses to digest.
In the case at hand, the reason one should read it lies neither in the well-written narrative plot, nor in its intense characters, or in the different stories that are artfully interwoven into one, or in the plot itself that keeps the reader hooked from the first page to the very last one, or in the realistic dialogues, or in the theatrical narration of images that unfold before the reader’s eyes as in a movie... but simply in the truth itself that the author reveals in telling stories of ‘illegal immigration’.
According to Tove Alsterdal – a Swedish journalist, screen and play writer –these people and their offsprings we are currenlty watching dying from asphyxia trapped in conteiners, or washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, are victims of exploitation by organised human trafficking networks, a phenomenon that she claims is politically motivated, and has taken the form of modern-day slavery.
At this point, I find it impossible to digest the unthinkable that lurks in the handful of words I just spread around...
Although Alsterdal’s debut-novel was first out in 2009, and is based on stories of ‘illegal’ immigrants from sub-saharan Africa, it simultaneously bears witness to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who in their struggle to escape the warzones of the Middle East, find themselves passing through Greece, a transcontinental geographical node where Europe, Asia, and Africa intersect.
The novel touches upon the horror experienced by these souls –the ones we call illegal immigrants –, trying to escape their ‘third-world’ homelands, only to feel to their deepest core what is graciously called ‘western European civilisation’, either lost in the hundreds in the wet graves of the Mediterranean, or falling victims together with their young ones to the criminal networks exploiting ‘illegal’ immigrants that have sprung all over 21st century Europe.
Through their stories, “Women on the beach” unveil the phenomenon of illegal immigration, its transformation into ‘modern slavery’, and its ever-expanding web, where European politicians become spiders devouring the dreams of so many who risk everything to be in the old continent looking for a brighter day after…
We’re talking about proper slavery, which is increasing constantly, as a side effect of globalization. It’s about poor souls who die inside containers when they smuggle them from country to country, others drown or die from lack of oxygen while trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe and are washed up on the shores close to seaside resorts.
At Tarifa, a traditional turist resort of Andalucia and a classic destination for international surfers, the body of a man is washed up on the beach and the lives of three women –unknown to each other –, intersect at that exact moment. Their stories are the points around which the main narrative structure revolves, while diary-entry writing becomes the base upon which the chapters are structured. This is how the novel unfolds its narrative line.
Therese, Mery, and Alina, 3 women, 3 different cultures, 3 different characters, 3 different ways of life, from different parts of the world unwillingly share a common denominator: they find themselves involved in stories whose point of reference is the wave of immigrants entering Europe illegally, disturbing the ‘advanced’ societies of the Old Continent and the European political players who are searching for a solution in vain…Or are they?
In the end, all three, without even knowing it, exchange gifts between them, pieces of their own lives.
Therese is a 20 year-old tourist from Sweden, (the only reference the book makes to the birth place of the author, perhaps intended as an irony), who feels like a zero! A zero nobody can love, as it’s just a zero. A girl hiding behind her daddy’s back, falling in the honey trap set by a vagabond who takes advantage of the predicament of immigrants he comes upon, while she has to face the harsh reality around her when she literally steps on the body of a man of colour washed on the beach.
Meri, a woman from Nigeria, wishes to escape from ‘an Africa trapped in the past’. This woman is desperately trying to find a ray of hope, a new life in the shores of Europe, where she was washed up alive, after being thrown in the sea with the rest of the human cargo, her fellow ’travellers’ in this horror journey, by the ‘people’ who promised to smuggle them away from Africa and into Europe.
“These very same ‘people’ raped her in the desert, stole her papers, and all her valuables, they pushed her around in the rocky paths, hit her on the back with a stick […] until they were all on the boat, sitting down knees stuck to their chin, so close together, they could hardly move”.
Alina is perhaps the character Alsterdal identifies more with, as she has admited in an interview. The daughter of an immigrant mother, Ali, who lived in Prague until she was six in a ‘marxist-leninist regime’, a self-made stage designer in New York, with a strong personality and a history of trauma, finds out she is pregnant, while her husband, Patrick, ‘a defender of true journalism’ disappears in Paris where he was working on a story about trafficking, illegal immigration and modern slavery.
She decides to follow him in Europe using as a guide a diagram based on lose notes and a cd with hazy photographs Patrick had sent her. Reconstructing the events in her mind, she tries to piece together a disarrayed puzzle to find him, only to come face to face with the same ring of traffickers Patrick was trying to uncover behind the well-put together front of a successful adviser company.
The story is set in motion by other characters as well, mostly women; Empowered, decisive, independent, bossy women. A story full of surprises revealing the subconscious racist prejudices that prevail in the 21st century, a detailed account of the strategies traffickers follow, narrating episodes from the miserable and dehumanising conditions experienced by immigrants, the forlorn hopes of those who risk heir lives, knowingly, to escape Scylla only to find themselves in the arms of Charybdis. This story sheds light on the darker sides of the European dream, on the insensitive and sleazy world of state authorities, on the human-slave market based on fear, where immigrants are kept prisoners to work in order to pay off the enormous debts accumulated through their ‘illegal’ journey in and out of borders. What we learn is that in the 21st century, there are over eight million immigrants without any papers living in Western Europe, in conditions of slavery.
Immigrants are subjected to exploitation as cheap or even free labour [...] In the past, a slave was an investment one would sustain over many generations. Today, this slave has become a product for instant use, discarded when our job is done.
According to UN sources, more than 300.000 people have attempted to cross the Mediterranean, 2500 of which are either dead or missing.
Translation: Constantine A.