In Eldorado, the latest novel from the acclaimed French writer Laurent Gaudé (translated into English by Adriana Hunter, and published by MacAdam/Cage in 2008), a Sicilian naval captain and a Sudanese emigrant take parallel (and perilous) journeys through Europe and Africa. Gaudé’s book reads as a raw and fast-moving tale of suspense, and also examines the tangled ethics of immigration with powerful moral clarity. Eldorado is extremely unsubtle and sometimes even outright melodramatic, but also gripping, forceful, and memorable.
Salvatore Piracci, Gaudé’s Italian captain, has made a career of tracking down the imperiled boats of would-be immigrants and bringing the (relatively) lucky survivors into custody. But after hearing the story of an immigrant woman whose child died after the men she paid to take them to Europe instead abandoned them at sea, Salvatore is deeply shaken, and begins to doubt that he has been doing the right thing. Later, another immigrant who Salvatore has rescued from a stormy sea pleads with Salvatore for his freedom, and begs him not to turn him in to the Italian authorities (who will certainly send him right back home). Salvatore refuses because it is what he is expected to do, and because it is what he has always done in the past. “You can change my life,” the immigrant points out to him in desperation—and Salvatore knows that the immigrant is right, and comes to understand that he not only has the power to let the immigrant go, but also an ethical obligation to do so. All the same, he abandons the immigrant to the authorities. Soon after, however, he realizes that his career as a naval captain is over, because he can no longer devote himself in good conscience to his work.
Of Salvatore’s realization, Gaudé writes, “The guardian of the citadel was growing weary while its assailants were younger every time. And they were beautiful, lit up by the hope in their eyes.” Salvatore has grown tired of his duties, which he has come to see as both unethical and ultimately pointless. And when he thinks of the incredible power of the desire that has driven the immigrants toward Europe, he realizes that there is nothing at all that he wants for himself with comparable strength. His his life has no driving force, and he has no dreams, and he in fact has been crushing the dreams and hopes of others without any real consideration of the ethical implications of his actions.
With Eldorado Gaudé poses a series of piercing, provocative questions about the ethical responsibilities of individuals in the context of deeply immoral authorities and systems. If laws and authorities require unethical behavior, or at least cause unethical outcomes, should an individual rebel against those laws and authorities? If an individual does not act, and lets authority have its way, is that individual ethically culpable? Is violence ever justified in the service of ends that are indisputably just? Should those people (or perhaps even cultures) who have no dreams make way for others who do?
Whatever the answers, Gaudé suggests that these kinds of conflicts will inevitably continue to arise. Sulemain, the young Sudanese man who is the novel’s other major character, simply will not be deterred in his efforts to reach European shores. “The world’s too big for my feet,” he reflects, “but I will carry on.” As long as people hunger for better lives, the dream of Eldorado will always beckon, and people like Salvatore will have to make decisions about where they stand.