Errant boys have been running through our nation’s best novels for a long time. Hemingway famously declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn’,” and whether you agree with that or not, boys — and men who still act like them — demand a lot of attention in our canon. But this summer, the kids lighting out for the territory come from Africa and the Middle East, and their journeys will take you somewhere entirely different.
Enaiatollah Akbari was just 10 years old when his Afghani mother sneaked him into the busy city of Quetta, Pakistan, and abandoned him in 2000. Cruel as that sounds, it was an act of love by a woman desperate to protect her elder son from Pashtun gang members and the Taliban, who had already shot his teacher and closed their village school. “The thing is, I really wasn’t expecting her to go,” Akbari says at the opening of In the Sea There Are Crocodiles (Doubleday, $22.95). This gripping, strangely sweet tale is labeled “a novel,” but it’s essentially the memoir of a lost boy tossed from country to country for five years before finding sanctuary in Italy. There, a journalist named Fabio Geda befriended Akbari and won permission to write down his story.
This English translation by Howard Curtis captures the young man’s open-hearted tone just right as he describes waking up in a Pakistani city where he knows no one and can’t speak the language: “One thing I wanted to avoid (one among many others, like dying) was people taking advantage of me.” That’s a full-time job as he searches for work, something to eat and a place to sleep. “Patience has its limits even when you’re a child no taller than a goat,” he says. “I was feed for the hens.” But he’s also a model of optimism and industriousness. Running messages and selling snacks, he gradually makes friends with other street kids and saves enough money to pay traffickers to smuggle him into Iran — twice! — where good jobs supposedly await. “Destination and destiny are very similar, aren’t they?” he asks. Reading of Akbari’s efforts to find a better life — alone and at an age when children in our country can’t even drive yet — will leave you shaken, but his resilient joy leavens the story even when he’s toiling for 90 hours a week at dangerous work in a locked warehouse, crossing the snow-covered mountains from Iran to Turkey on foot, or hiding in the false bottom of a truck “like grains of rice squeezed in someone’s hand.” The lovely rapport between Akbari and Geda comes across now and then when the journalist interrupts to prod him for more detail, gently reminding him just how extraordinary his experience is.
Anatomy of a Disappearance (Dial, $22) presents an entirely different story of a young man on his own: a boy of privilege set adrift by political intrigue. Libyan writer Hisham Matar won international acclaim with his poetic first novel, “In the Country of Men,” and once again he draws on his family’s terror under the reign of Moammar Gaddafi to tell the harrowing tale of a son deprived of his parents. The tone here is melancholy and steeped in regret as the narrator recalls himself as a lonely 12-year-old, grieving for the death of his mother, pining for his father’s affection and attracted to his flirtatious new stepmother. “You like to watch me, don’t you,” she teases, long after she should have stopped. Matar is an elegant writer who subtly evokes all the sexual tension between this young Englishwoman and her stepson beset by “deliberate and shameful self-delusion.” But when his father, a close adviser of the deposed Egyptian king, is “disappeared” by political opponents, the Oedipal nightmare reaches a grim climax. Though money and safety aren’t a problem — the young narrator is the heir to a 600-year-old silk fortune — he finds himself unmoored, searching for an answer to the “ambiguous loss” of his dad. “I felt guilty,” he writes, “at having lost him, at not knowing how to find him or take his place. Every day I let my father down.” Caught between unanswered longing and unresolved grief, he’s never able to love anyone again. The resolution is too sudden and revelatory, but “Anatomy of a Disappearance” remains a haunting novel, exquisitely written and psychologically rich.