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Book of the Year: “Submergence” by J.M. Ledgard

Tuesday, 31 December, 2013

J.M. Ledgard leads a double life. As a journalist, he covers East Africa for The Economist, but he’s also a novelist and the multitasking narrator of Submergence, James More, reflects Ledgard’s twofold career. Ostensibly, he’s a water engineer based in Nairobi, but that’s just a cover for his activities as a British intelligence agent. When we meet him, he’s been captured by a Somalian affiliate of al-Qaeda, which keeps moving him back and forth across the bleak African terrain, trying to hide from American drones while planning jihad. James is sustained in his suffering by the memory of a brief affair in a hotel on the French Atlantic coast with Danielle Flinders, a brilliant and carnal bio-mathematician, who studies the luminous creatures of the ocean floor. As James sinks deeper into the desolation of his captivity, Danielle prepares for a dive that will take her to the extreme depths of the Atlantic. Submergence mixes language, science, politics, geography and love in a superb story about deserts, oceans, desire and terror.

Saif, the leader of the jihadist group, constantly talks of martyrdom. At one point, he says, “I expect to die soon. I welcome it. I expect you’ll be killed too. That is why I want you to convert to Islam.”
“No,” James said, firmly.

This exchange is followed by a truly extraordinary lyrical passage:

“There was no chance he would convert. It was not just a question of Islam, it was the way life was constructed. A man lived his threescore years and ten, less than a whale, less than a roughy fish, and the only way to come to terms with his mortality was to partake in something that would outlive him: a field cleared of stones, a piece of jewellery, a monument, a machine. Every man was a loyalist for what he knew. Even tramps fought for the tramping life. Life was too short for him to renounce the English parish church, once Catholic, with their knights’ tombs, prayer cushions, flower arrangements, the brass lectern in the shape of an eagle. No, the quiet of those places — the ancient front door, the graveyard, the meadow, the damp — gave him a sense of belonging. He was loyal to them. It was too late to abandon the English canon, from Chaucer to Dickens, the first World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and the drizzle… He had said it before: he was an intelligence officer who reached out, spoke Arabic, read widely, but if the Crusades were invoked — and Saif was invoking them — then he was a Crusader. If he had to die at the hands of fanatics, he wished to remain familiar and coherent to those whom he loved and who loved him.”

J.M. Ledgard has partaken in something that will outlive him and he’s to be congratulated for writing such honest and moving prose. If, in 2014, we are to suffer pain and loss, let us remain familiar and coherent to those whom we love and who love us.

desert


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