Being Attentive to the World We Inhabit
A woman travels from North Africa to Italy and on to Germany in search of the child that was taken from her. A police inspector reconstructs her journey, taking statements from people who encounter her on her journey or while she is living in Berlin. Lloyd Jones’ novel, Hand Me Down World, consists of these statements, with the inspector filling in the gaps. We do not know, until late in the book, why the inspector is investigating the woman. But the attention he pays to her story goes far beyond what is needed for the purposes of the investigation.
The inspector’s meticulous reconstruction is reminiscent of the case examined in the radio documentary The Man Who Fell to Earth, about an African man who fell from the undercarriage of a plane as it approached Heathrow. Klaus Neumann has written about this case: “What is remarkable about the story is the interest shown in the dead man – by the documentary maker, the coroner, the pathologist, the people living in the street where he was found and, most significantly, the police officer in charge of the case. They kept asking who he was, where he came from, and why he risked his life by stowing away in a plane’s wheel-well.”
This is precisely the attention that is not shown by Australians to the people who seek asylum in our country.
In Hand Me Down World, the woman buys a passage on a boat full of refugees, who are all dumped in the sea between Tunisia and Italy. While others drown, the woman is a strong swimmer and makes it to land, presumably the island of Lampedusa.
Last July Pope Francis visited Lampedusa for a ceremony to remember the thousands of people who have drowned on such journeys. He called on people to be sensitive to the suffering of others, and praised those who had shown “solidarity” to irregular migrants. He condemned the “globalisation of indifference” and advocated that indifference be replaced, not by compassion but by attentiveness. “We are no longer attentive to the world we inhabit,” he said.
Klaus Neumann sees compassion as a cop-out that “presupposes an unequal relationship between the one who is compassionate and the one who is shown compassion.” Self-interest is inherent in compassion. It is easy for politicians to say they want to stop the boats because they feel “compassion” for asylum seekers and don’t want them to drown at sea, but in fact they are indifferent to the backstories that have driven refugees to seek asylum. Who are they, and why have they been desperate enough to pay people smugglers to get them to Australia?
The inspector in Hand Me Down World is attentive to the world he inhabits. He is interested in who the African woman is, and why she has made her way from Tunisia to Berlin. He is interested in the “solidarity” of those who helped her on her journey. The book’s style is matter-of-fact and free of the easy sentiment of compassion.
Can we be as attentive as the inspector? Can we listen to the Tamil man who gets to Christmas Island or the Afghan family stuck in Indonesia?
For another view of Hand Me Down World, see Whispering Gums, who discusses how the book’s characters illuminate the theme of empathy.