A new novel about the 2015 surge of migration to Europe raises questions about whether fiction that draws on ethnographic methods can bring a uniquely intimate perspective to the relations between asylum seekers and the volunteers who try to help them.

The Wrong End of the Telescope

Rabih Alameddine

Grove Press, 2021

Is fiction suited to handling the hardest cases among contemporary global events, like the exodus of millions of people displaced from their homes and countries? In attempting through the novel to demonstrate how world-historical forces shape the lives of individuals, is there not a risk of sentimentalizing or trivializing unspeakable tragedy? Or worse, appropriating lives in extremis for the sake of providing a few hours’ entertainment for a comfortably distanced Western audience, which may experience a passing frisson of empathy before casually moving on?

Some novelists surely do fall into these traps, while others stay on safer ground. But a few have been more successful in drawing on the resources and freedoms of this most capacious literary form to capture the border-crossing extremes of human drama, of lives thrown into flight from war and poverty. If done well, a novel can treat such themes with unique depth, taking the materials provided by journalism—or even social science research—and bringing them to life with the techniques of literary fiction: imaginative associations and conjunctures, subtle shadings of character, explorations of interiority and ambiguous motivations, suggestive situations lit by flashes of transfiguring irony. The use of these powerful tools on the material of epic human suffering requires sensitivity as well as daring.

In his latest novel, The Wrong End of the Telescope, Rabih Alameddine displays these qualities to impressive effect. He has written a highly distinctive account of the refugee crisis that unfolded in the past few years on the easternmost Greek islands, as tens of thousands fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere risked a treacherous sea crossing from the Turkish coast to reach what they hoped would be sanctuary and prosperity within the promised land of the European Union.

What sets Alameddine apart from most other chroniclers of the refugee drama is that he dares to use humor in what is objectively a deadly serious context. And his sense of humor has a strong tinge of camp, slipping often into bawdiness. Of encountering an Iraqi refugee couple, a pair of bearded gay men, a Palestinian aid worker recalls, “I turned around, and before me was my ultimate sexual fantasy. Mamma mia!” He coaches the men on how to adopt a slightly “less masculine” self-presentation in order to convince the European gatekeepers of their gayness and hence of their need for asylum.

Although one of Alameddine’s notable accomplishments is drawing attention to the presence of sexual minorities among the usually undifferentiated mass of refugees, at first this tone may seem off-putting, even outrageous, to a reader expecting a more solemn register: What is this frivolity doing in a portrayal of Moria, the notoriously squalid refugee camp on Lesbos, the shame of Europe? Moreover, his narrator is a transgender doctor from Chicago who volunteers to spend a few of her winter days off helping with a new influx of arrivals on the island. Will this complicated Western identity be just another distraction from a proper regard for the human misery at hand?

Yet Mina, the narrator, turns out to be not quite the outsider she seems at first glance. She is also very much an insider, a Lebanese emigrée with Syrian roots. Repeatedly she experiences shocks of recognition in her series of brief encounters with various refugees: these are her people, sharing the same Levantine culture in which she grew up. Some of them even resemble certain relatives of hers, living or dead. The first sentence of the novel, recording an immediate impression on her arrival at the airport on Lesbos, sets this motif in motion: “He was my people, kneaded of the same hands.”

Alameddine avoids rendering this connection as a sentimental kind of ethnic solidarity. Mina is thoroughly alienated from her own family, which disowned her when she came out as trans, and has not returned to her home city of Beirut since leaving for America forty years before. Mina is also a former refugee herself in a more literal (if privileged) way, having been sent off to British and American boarding schools during the Lebanese civil war. Although she stayed in America, she is not entirely at home there either. A US battleship destroyed her childhood home.

Also present on Lesbos is a novelist resembling the real author, another Lebanese emigré in his sixties, who keeps nearly running into Mina, becoming ever more distraught after interviewing some of the refugees. Finally Mina and her companions find him dining alone at a restaurant and insist that he join them. He testifies to a compulsion to bear witness, not in obedience to some universal humanist principle, but because these are his people, too. Yet the witnessing of such misery has shattered his nerves. He urges Mina to substitute for him and write the story of the island.

The novel is set a few years ago, at the end of 2015—the year Angela Merkel took the astonishingly humane step of leaving Germany’s borders open to the surge of refugees from the war zones on the Mediterranean periphery and beyond. But as the characters converge on Lesbos, the mood has already changed with the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, followed by mass sexual assaults allegedly perpetrated by migrants in German cities on New Year’s Eve. The openings in Europe’s armor are closing. The populist right is rising on a wave of anti-immigrant anger.

Some of Alameddine’s satire skewers Western NGO workers, volunteers, and journalists for their general cluelessness and occasional biases concerning the recipients of their well-meaning attentions. But what about other novelists? Does it take someone with similar origins and experiences—someone positioned between cultures—to do justice to a story like the refugee crisis?

The prominent German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck published Go, Went, Gone in 2015 (the English translation appeared in 2017), the peak year of the crisis Alameddine portrays. But Erpenbeck took her cue from an earlier episode: a 2012–14 occupation of a park in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district by African asylum seekers protesting their treatment. Erpenbeck’s narrator, Richard, is a retired professor of classical philology, and a widower. At first the novel seems ponderous, lugubrious; it lacks Alameddine’s playful style and his narrator’s sense of direct connection with the outsiders. But Erpenbeck gradually reveals that Richard, like Mina, is a kind of double refugee himself. As a former East Berliner, he spent much of his life under a vanished regime. When he was a small boy, after World War II, he and his parents were among the 2.5 million Germans expelled from the Sudetenland.

Richard takes an interest in the Africans and starts volunteering as a German teacher. In his conversations with the men, they tell him their stories of war, atrocity, dispossession, and harrowing journeys. As with Alameddine, these tragic tales are clearly based on conscientious ethnographic research by the author. Yet the reader may wonder whether this approach—limiting each refugee to relatively brief testimony, rather than allowing their narrations to expand to fit the epic scope of their stories—makes the most of the novelist’s resources. Both Alameddine and Erpenbeck scatter mythological references throughout their novels, yet both authors seem more interested in showing how contact with migrants awakens old memories and bittersweet emotions in their volunteer-narrators than in attempting to take the full measure of the odysseys of these modern-day Ulysses figures.

Perhaps it takes someone who has experienced the odyssey firsthand to do it justice. The novel is not the only medium suited for this task. One of the most memorable works about the refugee experience that I’ve encountered is a 2017 video by the Iraqi artist Hiwa K, Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue). Like Alameddine, Hiwa K uses humor as a means of drawing an audience into what might otherwise be forbiddingly grim material. But in his case, Hiwa K is reenacting his own epic journey from Kurdistan to Athens on foot. He does so while balancing a metal pole festooned with small mirrors on his forehead, as if performing a circus routine. Is this feat meant to symbolize the self-reflection that occupies a solitary trek? Or are the mirrors being held up to those of us in the West who observe the stranger’s approach with sympathy or dread?