The tale of a state in limbo

Borderlines (2015) is Michela Wrong’s debut novel. Taking the perspective of a British narrator named Paula, it tells the tale of a newly-independent fictitious African nation named North Darrar, which relapses into border conflict with its neighbour. Although the country is never mentioned, Wrong’s North Darrar looks very much like the real African nation of Eritrea. The story very much seems like a fictionalized account of events and anecdotes that took place in Eritrea in the last decade, events which Wrong has written extensively on in other publications.

In this well-written novel, Wrong weaves the picture of a curious and naive British lawyer who lands in Africa for the first time, carrying with her all the stereotypical images of the continent. And, at least initially, the bond between North Darrar and Paula, seems driven by her career more than anything else. As the story unfolds, Wrong depicts a country encapsulated in an early decolonizing process, trying to present itself to the world amid acute shortages of skilled human power, resources, and paranoid political leadership. Paula encounters a society that is generous, simple, hopeful, and yet ruled by a culture of pervasive paranoia. The paranoid culture, as the narrator Paula eventually understands, results from the long years of colonial rule, isolation, and political corruption. The commingling of seclusion, detachment, and inwardly looking culture further reinforce, according to one of the characters in the novel, the trauma and mutual distrust in the society:

Half the residents are related to each other and the other half fought alongside one another during the liberation struggle. They loathe or love each other, often simultaneously (102).

The story is roughly divided into three parts. The first section is where the narrator lands in a country that is yet going through the early steps of decolonization. Described in vivid detail are: impressive and ruined buildings; hope and anxiety; sense of loss and victory; as well as the seemingly monotonous life of the diplomatic and expatriate communities. In the second part, Paula and her team collect facts and evidence about the border conflict, as part of her preparation to represent the country in the international court of justice in The Hague. The third part chronicles hopeful stories of citizens who are gradually zombified. Paula also gets involved in the internal affairs of the country, campaigning against the political system’s corruption, which effectively ends the job that sent her there in the first place.

What is interesting is that Wrong’s writing avoids a simplistic over-generalization about the population of North Darrar, that reduces a people’s complexity into one-dimensional stereotypes. Different characters such as Dawit, who doubles as operations and opposition; the truly devoted yet ambitious revolutionary character of Dr. Berhane; and the pleasant personality of a government agent named Abraham all help paint the book’s multi-faceted landscape. The descriptions of a monotonous and slow daily life, the wearisome entrances into the world of international law where time is jagged into an eternity, punctuated by a sudden course of actions that result in unexpected outcomes, are symbolic representations of the country and its fate. Although at times the narrative seems extended, the story also benefits from the author’s wonderful curiosity for detail. This allows the author to create an interesting picture of the country by intertwining small stories into a bigger image of a state in limbo.

Abraham T. Zere

PEN Eritrea’s executive director and chief-editor. Suspended in perpetual limbo; mainly writes about Eritrea’s “friidom” of expression.

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