Morning Sea: A Novel

  • By Margaret Mazzantini; translated by Ann Gigliardi
  • Oneworld Publications
  • 131 pp.
  • Reviewed by Pauline Ada Uwakweh, Ph.D.
  • June 8, 2015

For two mothers, the social and psychological consequences of forced displacement are far-reaching.

Morning Sea: A Novel

In December 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor inspired by the Arab Spring burned himself to death in protest over government seizure of his goods, thus instigating a revolutionary war in Tunisia, North Africa.

Thereafter, similar protests erupted and spread like wildfire into Egypt, Libya, and some countries in the Middle East. By February 2011, Libya was in the throes of its 21st-century political crisis that would eventually lead to the end of Gaddafi’s 42-year regime. This recent Libyan civil war is the backdrop to Margaret Mazzantini’s new novel, Morning Sea.

Notably, Libya’s political history is marked by crisis stemming from decades of ethnic conflicts, festering poverty, and corrupt dictatorial government. Underlining this catalogue of woes is the country’s history of Italian colonialism. Morning Sea captures incidents surrounding the country’s recent revolution.

It is a carefully crafted political statement about the fate of oppressive governments, a thought-provoking exploration of the social and psychological consequences of human displacement, and a critique of the forces that stoke the embers of growing global migrations.

Although the author chooses a North-African country as her primary setting, Libya is also a microcosm of other nations writhing under the burden of colonial experience, ethnic conflicts, terrorism, and consequent population displacements.

Mazzantini fits well among notable writers exploring topical issues around emigration and challenges of displacement following wars and the collapse of national economies and governments. Examples include Dave Eggers (What Is the What), Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), Dinaw Mengetsu (The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears), and Chika Unigwe (On Black Sisters Street), to mention a few.

In Morning Sea, the writer portrays a grim and intense picture of migrants’ physical and psychological trauma, alienation, and social exclusion. Her setting, comprising sea and desert, is a hostile space where human atrocities lay buried, either beneath the scorching sand dunes or the deep and mysterious sea. The landscape is capricious, deterministic, and bound with the fate of the displaced. Neither land nor sea offers safety from pervasive violence.

Focusing on the travails of two mothers, Mazzantini makes the point that forced displacement can have far reaching social and psychological consequences. The young mother, Jamila, barely twenty years old, and her child, Farid are ethnic Bedouins with strong ancestral roots in Libya. When her husband, Omar, is killed by troops loyal to Gaddafi, she has no option but to escape with her only son across the sea and at the mercy of traffickers. Her destination is Italy where she hopes for a better life for her son.

Ironically, across the same sea, is another emotionally burdened, single mother, Angelina ― a “Tripolini.” She was 11 years old in 1970 when her Italian parents were banished from Tripoli following Libya’s 1969 political crisis — Gaddafi’s coup and overthrow of King Idris. Now, as a divorced mother with a teenage son, Vito, her sense of alienation and loss of her “Arab life” is still a fresh wound.

The first two chapters of Morning Sea ― “Farid and the Gazelle” and “The Colour of Silence” ― explore these interrelated stories. The mothers’ struggles bring a human face to a global problem. Mazzantini demonstrates the extent to which nations can replicate their cycle of violence.

By connecting Libya’s present challenges with its past history of colonialism, the writer offers readers unique insights on the costs of civil crisis. The existential struggle of mother and son for survival depicts the plight of refugees and migrants. This haunting picture explains how and why the “sea of salvation” becomes a burial place for the world’s scapegoats.

Eighteen-year-old Vito is a dominant character in the second chapter of Morning Sea; perhaps Mazzantini’s glimmer of hope in an otherwise pessimistic story. The son of Angelina and a Norman Sicilian man, Vito is striving to overcome his own sense of alienation and parents’ divorce.

His abiding empathy for his mother and her struggle to break her “emotional wall” breeds in him a vicarious attachment to the sea. He is also inspired by the plight of migrants to preserve memory of the countless and nameless dead that perish in their bid for a better life across the sea.  

Vito’s obsession with the sea and its mystery is a prevailing motif in the novel. Constantly brooding by the seashore and watching for dead migrants’ belongings, “pieces of those aborted escapes…Lives that never reached their destination,” he begins to realize the importance of keeping their memory alive through his “immense panel of sea remains."

In the future, these artifacts will aid generations of survivors to track their ancestral roots. Indeed, Vito has the vision and determination to articulate the significance of memory. There is a strong indication that the memory of Jamila and little Farid may be preserved through the mementos he chooses from the beach, such as the protective leather pouch and charm that mothers hang around their children’s neck. 

Mazzantini deals with topical issues — war, migration, and its consequences. However, she is not so much concerned with the power brokers as with the invisible pawns that bear the brunt of political power play. The novel succeeds by virtue of the writer’s ability to articulate history, politics, and raw human dilemma in captivating lyrical language without sounding pedantic.

Morning Sea is highly recommended for its insights on the forces that perpetuate migration globally. Its language is fresh and laced with unforgettable phrases. “Memory is chalk on bloody pavements,” the narrator declares, thereby, underscoring the extent to which memory demands to be preserved for the future. At the end of the novel, Vito calls his mother with news of Muammar Gaddafi’s death. Angelina is keenly aware that wars rarely come to a tidy end.

Some readers might find the novel’s plot intricate or somewhat confusing; nevertheless, its third and last chapter, also titled “Morning Sea,” effectively reinforces plot and thematic unity, as well as the writer’s overall message. (Valuable information on Libya’s political climate may be found at "Demystifying the Arab Spring" and "the Libyan Revolution.")

Pauline Ada Uwakweh is associate professor of literature and graduate coordinator in the Department of English, North Carolina A &T State University, Greensboro, North Carolina. She is co-editor of Engaging the Diaspora: Migration and African Families (Lexington Books, 2013). Several of her articles appear in professional journals and critical books, including Research in African Literatures, African Literature Today, Journal of African Literature Association, Emerging African Voices, Emerging Perspectives on Buchi Emecheta, Nwanyibu: Womanbeing in African Literature, and Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo. Her research interests focus on immigrant female identity and militancy in African/Diaspora literature. Uwakweh maintains active interest in children’s literature and is also author of a children's novel, Running for Cover (Onwubiko, 2nd ed. Nigeria: Africana First Publishers, 2010).

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