Two writers, Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, were commissioned by Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press to go to the Calais refugee camp to listen to refugees’s stories and rework them into fictions of their own. The result is this gem of a book, ‘breach’, a collection of eight pieces or short stories about the lives and experiences not just of the refugees but of others who connect with them- volunteers, a Calais landlady, smugglers, an elderly teacher of English in Bolton. Through these stories we learn about the tough conditions in the camp- the mud, the cold, the anxiety, the desperation- but also hear the backstories of the individuals and the dire circumstances which set them on the route to Calais in the first place. Having read some reportage about the refugees’ journey in Wolfgang Bauer’s book ‘Crossing the Sea’ and seen the outstanding BBC2 documentary ‘Exodus’, I was curious to see whether fiction could bring an extra dimension to the story of Calais and as a fan of short stories was keen to see how the form could express the refugees’ experience.
The book starts with Counting Down, a story focusing on the friendships between a group of men in the camp- the title refers to them joking around about the record time to cross the border. They joke too about names, calling themselves nicknames- Obama, MG, GPS, Calculate- and while depicting the good humoured banter, the narrator describes each face in striking images- of MG ‘he can make his face become a curtain that opens fast’ whereas GPS’ ‘face closes. He needs to lock it so nothing can come in and nothing can leave’. We readers are invited to share the intimacy of the narrator’s gaze, to become part of the group and are all the more shocked then when Calculate is shown to have other motives in his concern to protect the young MG. The complex motives of friendship and questions of trust are raised in this first story and MG demonstrates his rude awakening to the duplicitous side of adult behaviour by spitting at his erstwhile friend. Echoing the reference to that man on the beach who spat at the refugees pitching up there, saying that ‘tourism does not want to see any dead bodies floating onto the sand’.
Narrative voice is used to great effect in the next story, ‘Terrier’, told from the point of view of a middle aged French woman who has taken a brother and sister refugee pair into her home, paid for by the local Calais council. Being practical, she could do with the money, especially out of season with no holiday makers to take her rooms, but being aware of local opinion, she keeps this little money spinner quietly to herself. Yet she is curious about the young people and her feelings for them ricochet between a business like distance and an emotional intensity seen in her narrator’s response to the girl Nalin, ‘ her eyes are eerily blue, blue- green but transparent in the way that clear water flowing over sand is transparent, full of light’ and when Nalin kisses her suddenly in thanks, the ‘three breathy kisses’ are ‘like butterfly wings beating’. As if the young people are offering some kind of emotional connection missing in her own life.
‘Extending a hand’ is another story with female protagonists-24 year old Habena and her friend Mariam are desperate for money to send home to Mariam’s mother who has an ulcer- worries about family, phone calls and texts back home are a constant backdrop to the stories. The problem becomes acute when the ulcer bursts and Habena agrees to help her friend find the money by offering her sexual services to the truck drivers who wait nightly outside the camp. A sideshow in this story is that of the annoying volunteers- the ones who offered Habena all those dowdy comfortable old clothes when she wants tight leggings- the smiling volunteer who won’t leave them in peace when they’re on a desperate phone call with Mariam’ s mother. Volunteers move into centre stage in the next story ‘Paradise’ . Here we meet Julie, an idealistic young British student, come to volunteer at the camp with her seasoned leftie campaigning aunt Marjorie to the chagrin of her right wing Dad whose views nevertheless loom large in Julie’s consciousness as her ‘inner Dad’. At the same time we meet the handsome and charismatic refugee Muhib, closely bonded with his friend Isaac. Julie and Muhib have a romantic encounter and yet afterwards Muhib is dreaming of the well in his village, his mother, the loss of his friend Isaac, who leaves the camp. The gulf between his world and Julie’s is great indeed.
‘Ghosts’ shows us another side of the refugee experience in a kind of slow reveal. The narrator is tailing another man he refers to as ‘Ghostman’ around a city, to a casino, to women, to bars. He is angry with ‘Ghostman’ for his weakness, which is the weakness of talking. We don’t know the relationship between them at first but it becomes chillingly clear that it is one of power connected with people smuggling. And in this, one of the hardest stories, the brief referral to their past and the reasons for their flight-from local warlords and the Taliban- give us a glimpse of the effects of cycles of violence and abuse of power.
An easier read is ‘Lineage’ which starts in the line for the barbers’ where Farrukh seeks to befriend the melancholy Ramzi who bizarrely wants to be smuggled back to Iran to visit his sick mother. He has already applied for leave to remain in the UK but can’t apply for a visa with a pending application. While the two have tea in the Afghan cafe a plump guy asks Farrukh to recite a poem by his namesake- a poet I take to be Iranian as Farrukh is in the Iranian camp. He is unable to do so and sneaks off to do some other shady business. In the meantime the plump guy himself steps forward to recite and his performance is described with heartstopping prosody. The effect on the teadrinkers is transformative : ‘the whole shop starts clapping’ and Ramzi’s melancholy mood is lifted.
Themes of friendship and the ruthlessness of the smugglers are explored in ‘Oranges in the River’ where childhood friends Jan and Dlo seek to cross the channel in refrigerated containers, known to be one of the most dangerous ways of crossing. This story makes palpable the fear and anxiety endured by the refugees attempting this kind of crossing; whatever instructions the smugglers give them, they run the risk that the lorry drivers will park up for too long and they will freeze to death. The friends take different routes and become separated. Gaining one objective by crossing the channel can mean losses too.
Finally ‘Expect Me’ deals with the relationship between Sudanese Alghali and his English conversation teacher Mr. Dishman in Bolton. There is an interesting account here of their mutual need and similarity- the English lessons provide a structure and motivation for them both- while Alghali is prey to racism which erupts on the night of the Paris bombings. We gradually realise that this is in fact the Alghali from the first story and discover what has become of the group of friends.
So the book comes back to those first characters and this, together with the repetition of themes of friendship, trust, vulnerability, separation, through all the stories make them seem less separate stories but more like chapters in the same book to me. I also felt the cumulative effect of the ambiguity expressed in repeated gestures like Jan gripping Dlo’s shoulders ‘through to the bones’- is this gripping in support, crushing or coercive? By the time I got to Mr. Dishman who ‘walks Alghali to the door, a hand on his shoulder’, for me this had undertones of frogmarching as well as kindness. So the careful use of repetition of images and ideas through the different stories allows the emergence of a rich and complex picture of the Calais camp, its residents and our responses. And herein lies the power of fiction. Which is not to take away from the real, often devastating experiences on which the stories are based. This book will deepen and enrich your understanding of the lives of all those people living in the Calais camp just 30 miles from the UK. I cannot recommend it enough.