Recent novel explores the migrant’s perspective

A recent wave of fatal sea crossings has jolted Europe into addressing its immigrant and refugee crises. In early October, a boat transporting hundreds of North African migrants from Libya to Italy wrecked off the coast of Lampedusa. Eight days later, a second vessel – this time bearing refugees from the Middle East – sank in the waters off Malta. Greece has not been unaffected by these tragedies. In an attempt to enter Southern Europe earlier this month, 12 Syrian refugees drowned off the shores of Lefkada in the Ionian Sea.

The obstacles awaiting the African and Middle Easterners who safely reach Europe’s coasts are no less imposing than those faced at sea. Published this past July by Knopf, Alexander Maksik’s “A Marker to Measure Drift” is a timely and provocative portrayal of those struggles. The highly anticipated novel traces a young Liberian woman’s attempts to scrape together an existence on the Greek island of Santorini. Hounded by her father’s association with Charles Taylor and his bloody regime, Jacqueline must come to grips with her devastating past while dodging the pitfalls of her present: assessing stares from Greek policemen, hunger, rapacious beach vendors, homesickness, suspecting islanders, homelessness.

Jacqueline’s Santorini experience is unlikely to resonate with that of most vacationers to the island (she smuggles napkins from gyro stands in lieu of purchasing toilet paper). But her spiral into unspeakable tragedy may invite uncomfortable comparisons to today’s Athenians. It begins with her father, Liberia’s finance minister. He’s a charming but hubristic man who squanders money on shiny kitchen appliances and assures his family that the country – a pulsing new hub of tourism – is impervious to turmoil unfolding throughout the rest of the continent. Upon graduating from a prestigious British boarding school, Jacqueline is gifted a newly created government post: Liberia’s minister of tourism. “Our new country. You’ve never seen such beaches. A secret paradise, sir,” Jacqueline informs Western travel agents who inquire about the country’s raging civil war.

Jacqueline falls in love with Bernard, a French journalist who facilitates her escape from Liberia on the eve of the rebel siege of Monrovia (“Coming for blood, coming for the city.”). In Spain Bernard abandons Jacqueline. In dark moments she reconstructs the selfish terms of his generosity:

“I have done my duty. I have saved her life. I am free of her, of them, of that miserable, wasted place. I am free and I have done more than most men.”

Jacqueline is nearly beaten to death by drunken Spanish beachgoers. She flees to Santorini, a former tourism minister cowering in half-constructed hotels in the honeymoon capital of the Mediterranean. She attempts to befriend waitresses and tour guides, to cobble together some semblance of her former socialite self. But every contact marks a potential threat to her precarious, unlawful existence. “You must be graceful and kind. You must be elegant and demure,” she tells herself. “You must be confident without ever being haughty. You must always, always be deferential. As if everyone you meet is holding a rifle to your throat.”

Massaging tourists’ feet by day, Jacqueline makes shelter in a cave by night. She develops a strange oneness with the island’s natural beauty and its lurking volcanic power: “Perhaps it came from spending so many hours watching it. Perhaps it came from keeping her face pressed so close to the ground, her hands in the needles, her feet in the dirt of it, her body so exposed to its ever-present wind. There was solace in this.” Solace, but also anger: Upon learning that Santorini’s eruption once decimated an entire civilization, Jacqueline “wished this island would erupt again and turn her to ash.”

The novel is not the first in which Maksik adopts a woman’s standpoint. But “A Marker to Measure Drift” challenges the American author to engage with the additional perspective of race. This boundary is breached credibly throughout. Maksik’s representation of Jacqueline’s troubled relationship with the other Africans on Santorini – CD and handbag vendors – rightly reveals how migrant identity can be oversimplified by undiscerning observers. Jacqueline initially greets the island’s other Africans as signposts of Greek acceptance:

“She hadn’t seen Africans since leaving Spain and now she did not know what to be. It was good they were there. It meant less danger than she’d imagined. It meant permission. It meant tolerance. It meant possibility.”

But a later incident – one of the Africans grabs Jacqueline by the arm and claims to know where she sleeps at night – swiftly disintegrates that trust. At once these African men become the greatest threat to Jacqueline’s existence. They operate outside of the law; they detect a fellow refugee’s vulnerability; their ilk has uprooted Jacqueline once before.

The novel’s prose is, like the protagonist it describes, direct and unadorned. While Maksik doesn’t hesitate to snip Jacqueline’s internal stream of consciousness down to its bald grammatical essentials (“Only go down the path. Only find water. Find food. Find shelter.”), this causes much of the novel’s dialogue to come across as stilted and long-winded by comparison. Take Jacqueline’s discussion with a cafe waitress regarding the island’s stray dogs:

“I love them,” Katarina says. “I would like to keep them all.”

“Me too,” Jacqueline says.

“Yes? That’s good. There are many people who don’t feel the same as us. Many of the people hate them.”

“My sister,” Jacqueline says, “always preferred cats.”

Katarina glances at her and nods.

“But I have always loved dogs.”

Vacuous exchanges of this sort extract yawns from cover to cover. Maksik’s writing is not what sustains the reader’s interest in Jacqueline’s tragedy; it’s the inch-by-inch unraveling of that tragedy, teased out in a series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the novel.

Critics have generally reviewed “A Marker to Measure Drift” alongside other recent American attempts to explore African politics through fiction: Susan Minot’s “Thirty Girls” and Dave Eggers’s “What Is the What.” But it is significant that the retelling of Jacqueline’s past horrors takes place not in Africa but Greece, tragedy’s very birthplace. Maksik has – perhaps unknowingly – inserted himself into a literary tradition that has been depicting the Cycladic islands as cursed, charmless rocks of exile since the Greeks sacked Troy. In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Calypso’s lush Aegean haven becomes a tormenting hell for Ithaca’s restless ruler. Hesiod relates how, after being whisked away from family tragedy by a crafty Athenian hero, Ariadne was cruelly left to die on the island of Naxos. Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” examines the dilemma of a renowned warrior who has been abandoned by fellow soldiers on Lemnos. Like Jacqueline, Philoctetes thirsts for some kind of closure to his troubles and yet remains physically and emotionally scarred by his countrymen’s betrayal.

The Cyclades of the ancient literary imagination have little in common with the Greek islands featured in swanky travel magazines and Hollywood films. “A Marker to Measure Drift” reinvigorates those raw Classical themes with the politics of a 21st-century world. The novel complements recent headlines in showing how Greece continues to attract tourists as well as tragedy.

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