Picture, if you will, walking into a literary world crafted by Abraham T. Zere. In 2020, he ushered readers into such a realm with his debut book “KALIE SLE ZEYELO”, a phrase in Eritrean that resonates with the sentiment “That is all there is” or “There’s nothing else”. This work seized my attention completely, pulling me in with the vivid colours of its stories and the profound resonance of its themes. So fascinated was I, in fact, that I found myself weaving my thoughts into an article titled “Forgetfulness: A Literary Technique in Abraham’s Short Stories”. This piece was an exploratory dive into a singular literary instrument employed in just two stories out of the book’s collection of 16. Yet, it felt like I was merely skimming the surface of this deep literary pool. The book, brimming with innovative narrative techniques, nuanced character explorations, and contemplations on existential themes, deserved more. It was a mosaic of tales that seemed to call for further analysis. In response to this literary magnetism, I found my pen once again dancing across the page, crafting a second analysis, this time delving into a singular story that spans pages 156 to 168.
The story “The Tide” revolves around twenty passengers on a sea voyage that takes a terrifying turn when their boat’s engine fails, causing it to start sinking. Upon learning of the dire situation, they are initially paralysed with terror. With every word from the captain, the passengers’ hearts sank as they faced the grim reality of their situation. After the captain announced that the engine was dead, he instructed them to lighten the burden by throwing their luggage and possessions overboard, acknowledging the relentless pounding of the waves that threatened to capsize the boat at any moment. Confronted with this looming threat, they capitulated to desperate actions, anxiously jettisoning their personal items into the ocean to maintain flotation and safeguard their existence. As the situation worsens, the captain suggests the unthinkable – to throw some passengers overboard to lighten the load. This proposal ignites a heated debate among the terrified passengers. Simultaneously, faith becomes their beacon of hope. Muslims and Christians initially pray separately before uniting in collective prayer. But despite their best attempts, the boat keeps sinking. A proposed number-picking to decide who to throw overboard is met with conflicting opinions. Some argue for the captain’s decision-making authority, while others question its fairness. Some argue for the exclusion of women and children, while others advocate for equality in the face of survival. However, as the boat continues to sink, their desperate survival instincts take over, leading them to throw people overboard. Amid this chaos, an elderly woman willingly sacrifices herself to the sea, and a third person intervenes in a fight, throwing two men overboard and providing temporary relief to the remaining passengers. As a last resort, the captain decides to distribute life jackets by casting lots. Just when despair appears absolute, another ship appears and rescues them. The fortunate survivors are consequently obliged to lament their losses, question their decisions, and introspect on the harsh alternatives imposed by life-endangering hardship. Among the survivors, some mourn those who didn’t make it, while others blame the person who threw the men overboard.
As readers delve into this story, they may find themselves emotionally crushed by the memories it evokes of the tragic experiences endured by many Eritreans. While written in 2008, the narrative serves as a devastating reminder that comparable heartbreaks have persisted from the mid-2000s to the present. The vivid imagery, word choice, and intense tensions compel us to remember all the Eritreans who perished while crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better future in Europe. Moreover, the story highlights the plight of those who are still alive and have experienced the harsh reality of a treacherous journey through the sea. As a general reader, each individual will interpret or “recreate” the meaning of this particular story based on their own values and experiences.
While unpacking the text’s narrative, the reader encounters significant symbols that interweave like threads throughout the story. These symbols not only link the storyline with its key themes, enhancing understanding, but also add depth, richness, and texture to the plot. It is within these intricate symbolic elements that the true essence of the story lies, waiting to be uncovered and appreciated for its nuances and themes by the discerning reader. The turbulent sea waves could serve as a potent symbol for life in general, with its unpredictable twists and turns and unexpected events that challenge us at every turn. The author employed the title ‘MAEBEL HIWET’ (or ‘The Tide’) as a hint or clue to convey the main theme. The boat itself could represent the fragile and temporary nature of human existence. In contrast, the ship’s sudden appearance at the end could represent hope and salvation, a reminder that help can come unexpectedly, even in the bleakest of circumstances. The story’s structure, its use of rising action to build up tension, and the pivotal moment when two people get tossed simultaneously establish a connection between the story and its themes. Additionally, the vivid imagery with the symbolism mentioned earlier imparts a deeper understanding of the text. By focusing on the technical aspects of a literary work – its form, structure, language, and devices – the story demonstrates its richness and allegorical nature that offers a reflection on the human condition.
Some passengers threw others overboard, while the majority allowed an elderly woman to be swept away by the relentless waves. Despite this, many subsequently feel a sense of relief. Some even contemplate tossing women and children overboard along with anyone else. The chaotic and intense atmosphere of the situation vividly depicts the human psyche in survival mode and under pressure, as the characters are forced to make difficult choices that reveal not only the darker aspects of their (human)nature but also a callous side of humanity that prioritizes one’s own survival at the expense of others.
The diverse characters presented in the story symbolize various human personalities. Their reactions, emotions, and feelings echo universal human traits or experiences, which means the characters serve as archetypes of humanity. The elderly woman’s choice could be seen as a selfless deed, as it represents the mother archetype by putting other people’s survival above her own, while others succumb to fear, desperation, and recklessness. The captain could represent the authority archetype, but his reckless and inhumane decisions – such as tossing passengers into the sea to increase their chances of survival – highlight the negative aspects of such authority. The person who was unfortunately chosen to be overthrown could represent the archetype of the outcast. The individual who callously tosses two men overboard can be perceived as the minion or henchman, embodying the darker facets of the servant archetype.
Out of nowhere, a ship emerges on the distant horizon. Once rescue is assured, the survivors mourn the loss of those who perished in the struggle for survival and speak highly of their positive qualities, as if they had not displayed the darker aspects of their nature earlier through inhumane decisions. This contradictory behaviour could be a reflection of the complexity and inconsistencies inherent in human nature. People can display different facets of their personality in different situations, and human behaviour might not always be predictable or consistent. But deep down, the lament or elegy is not only mourning for the deceased but also a way for the characters to express their failure in overcoming existential struggles and handling adversity during survival mode. This may reflect their shared experiences of weakness, fragility, inhumane actions, remorse, guilt, and shame. Surviving an ordeal often paves the way for personal growth and transformation. As chaos knows no boundaries and defies ideas and disciplines – in its positive guise, it births possibility, the realm of ideas, mystery. The individuals who have been rescued are encouraged to grasp this occasion, making sense of their chaotic experience as a catalyst for their development and to inspire meaningful change. Rather than merely a cruel twist of fate, this harrowing ordeal presents an opportunity for profound self-discovery. It holds the potential to shape their character, fostering the development of empathy, an acute awareness of life’s fragility and allowing them to witness the dynamic nature of the human spirit in dire circumstances.
When individuals read a story, their personal experiences, beliefs, and values inherently influence how they interpret and construct the story’s meaning. While some may view the story as a cost-of-migration narrative that reflects personal or societal experiences, others may be intrigued by its plot and its rising tensions. Additionally, certain readers may appreciate the story’s style, symbols, and techniques. Supporters of Jungian psychology, a viewpoint that emphasises the importance of the individual psyche and the quest for personal wholeness, argue that this story’s journey into unknown territory can be seen as a metaphor for the group’s collective ‘shadow’. This ‘shadow’ symbolises darker aspects of society’s psyche that are often repressed and unacknowledged, including its capacity for cruelty, violence, and inhumane behaviour. The characters in the story represent different facets of human nature. People who analyse literature and hold Marxist beliefs would argue, “the story can be seen as a commentary on class struggle, and the sudden appearance of the ship which rescues them can be interpreted as a representation of a utopian society.”
In summary, this short story effectively portrays the darker side of human nature under intense pressure. It explores the moral dilemma of choosing between individual survival and the value of human life. It shows how chaotic experiences – the unexplored territories – can confuse individuals with their unpredictability. And it illustrates how humans, all too human, can make decisions or act inhumanely. Among all emotions, fear, especially the fear of mortality, holds the most potent sway. It can stimulate our primal urge to survive, thus revealing what can be referred to as the absolute evil within us. Abraham’s narrative engages with themes that scrutinise the behaviour of individuals in desperate situations, bearing some resemblance to the themes in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”. Both narratives grapple with concepts like the vulnerability of human life, the psychological dynamics in survival scenarios, and the primitive survival instincts that surface when individuals encounter extreme situations.
Aman Tekeste is a Toronto-based Eritrean writer who graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Asmara. In 2020, he published two volumes of the ‘Encyclopaedia Eritreana: Dictionary of Eritrean Biography’ in the Tigrigna language. Alongside these biographical works, Aman also writes reviews and memoirs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
‘The Tide’ has been translated into English by Samuel E. Tsegai – here