What were you at ten? Being cared for by loved ones? Not so Enaiatollah Akbari. His father was murdered by bandits on a dangerous mission, into which the Pashtun Sunni Muslims of Afghanistan routinely forced the Shia Hazara people. The Pashtun had threatened to snatch Enaiatollah as compensation. In desperation, his mother smuggled her son into Pakistan, then returned to her other children.
The opening of Fabio Geda's true story, translated from Italian and now an international bestseller, is sorrowful and evocative. "I wasn't expecting her to go," says the simple first-person child's voice that simultaneously sounds wise and innocent. When you're ten, "on a night... like any other", and when your mother says "in a strange, low voice as warming as embers" that "there are three things you must never do" - use drugs or weapons, cheat or steal – then it doesn't occur to you that "what she's really saying is... goodbye".
Other child narrators with solemn, sage voices come to mind, from Nicole Krauss's The History of Love and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident... to Jack from Emma Donoghue's Room. But Enaiat's story is his own. Alone in Pakistan, he has to work to earn his (illegal) passage elsewhere. He embarks on back-breaking, often exploitative jobs for meagre wages to pay people-traffickers to take him to Iran, Turkey, Greece and finally Italy, where, five years later, he is granted asylum. This is where he meets Geda, a novelist who works with troubled children.
Geda's voice combines the plucky survivor's determination of his charge with moments of pathos-soaked poignancy and others of joyful laughter. The unforced sweetness of earnest childish observation contrasts shockingly with the ease with which Enaiat absorbs the ugliness of his world: "I'd counted three thousand... stars", and also "the number of bridges blown up by theTaliban".
Many of Enaiat's experiences are horrific. He is repatriated from Iran twice, yet doggedly makes his way back despite violence, dogs and guns. His passage between Iran and Turkey is unutterably dreadful, the promised three-day trek being a marathon of a month involving trudging up freezing mountains (some perish), and being squeezed with 65 others into enclosed spaces such as the false bottoms of trucks. His passage from Turkey to Greece involves rowing in a dinghy. A friend drowns.
Yet Enaiat's tone remains chirpy and positive. He makes friends with those in similar situations, and his mischievous enthusiasm renders him an engaging rather than pitiful hero. He decrees the box containing dinghy/life-jackets purchased from a trafficker "an Ikea flatpack for illegals"; refuses to read the Bible in a church where homeless are fed conditionally, but relents when "my stomach started rumbling... louder than my pride", and repeatedly asks a fellow train-passenger: "Rome?" The traveller thinks he's demanding rum and buys him a cola. Acts of kindness by strangers are a balm and offer hope in humanity next to the cruelty and greed of Taliban and traffickers.
It's sobering and heart-lifting to see the stoical determination and achievement of someone who makes our world look like paradise. This little gem, beautifully and unobtrusively translated, will raise tears of sorrow and of joy.