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Three Burials by Anders Lustgarten review – a madcap satire on the refugee crisis

Three Burials by Anders Lustgarten review – a madcap satire on the refugee crisis

With his debut novel, the British playwright Anders Lustgarten proves Orwell’s dictum that “to be funny, indeed, you have got to be serious”. A loud, populous, madcap satire on Britain’s broken refugee system, the novel takes on white extremism, Covid-19, the decline of the Met and the NHS, gentrification, the Home Office, the EU and migration in all its gritty, blood-soaked details. It combines political astuteness with tonal exuberance, morbid humour, situational irony and moral passion. The outcome is an irreverent, tragicomic tour de force as absurd and as urgent as hope.

The novel opens with Somali pals Omar and Abdi Bile crossing to Britain from France via the English Channel. A storm rises. Their boat runs into difficulty. They pray for rescue but instead along come white supremacist cop Freddie Barratt and his impressionable protege, officer Andy Jakubiak. A scuffle ensues when Omar and Abdi Bile try to hop on to their boat. Freddie kills Omar while Andy somehow captures the scene on video.

Omar’s body washes up on a beach on the south-east coast of England, where Cherry Bristow, a senior NHS nurse, comes upon it and is struck by the resemblance to her dead son. “The same long elegant limbs, the same poise even in death.” She also unclenches from his fist a laminated photograph of his girlfriend Asha, a young Somali woman illegally living and working in north-west London. Cherry makes it her mission to find her and give Omar a dignified burial. “He’s come all this way, from God knows what, just to get dumped in a fucking pit?” she spits out in objection to the public health burial that awaits him. “No name, no memory? It’s not right.”

Lustgarten creates in Cherry a modern-day Antigone, a character larger than life, full of sound, fury, grief and mad determination. “You’re in love with impossibility,” Antigone’s sister Ismene tells her in Sophocles’s play. So is Cherry, for complications arise that go beyond funerary distress. Freddie and Andy are out to retrieve the body. “The point being, if there’s no evidence, there’s no case to answer. No body, no problem.” But Cherry, like Antigone, will not be stopped – even if it means putting her own life at risk.

Realism is not an evident concern in this book. The narrative leaps and soars, unhindered by the rules of plausibility. As Cherry drives Omar’s body to London in her hatchback, she is assisted by her estranged husband (an ex-police officer) and her teenage daughter, a mortuary technician colleague, a Czech housekeeper and witch with embalming competency, a horny MILF-hunting motel concierge, even Andy.

Besides Cherry, the novel focuses on Abdi Bile, who is interned at a migrant processing centre, and his tortuous quest to contact Asha. Another thread, loopier and wackier, follows Asha as she makes her way to him, dodging police officers and security cameras. A British-Egyptian computer science university student Asha meets along the way masterminds a plan for Abdi Bile’s release. The episode involves the student and her on-off boyfriend cosplaying court clerks in cheap stripper-cop outfits.

The humour occasionally snags: Omar’s body at one point flops “like a drunk mate at the pub”. Mostly, though, this is a solid political novel with a clear, sensitive gaze trained on those who are forced to find refuge far from home. Lustgarten gives the reader heartrending insights into the violence and indignities they suffer as a result of systemic failures. At a camp on a Greek island, the police “are supposed to be there to guard the ‘protected’ section, an encampment of the vulnerable, but what they mainly do is gouge bribes from people and fuck the women who will take their money and stare with wooden-eyed hostility through the chain-link fence which separates their compound from the rest of the camp”. The camp is ultimately burned down by angry locals.

As I read this book, I thought of Dutch writer Tommy Wieringa’s 2019 novel, The Death of Murat Idrissi. It is the story of two young Dutch-Moroccan women who, while on a visit to Morocco, are tricked into smuggling Murat, a poor young Moroccan man, into Europe. Murat dies, suffocated in the boot of their hire car on the ferry journey to Spain, and the two women wrestle with complicated feelings – of guilt, fear, sadness, repulsion, nonchalance, helplessness and moral failure – as they try to dispose of the body.

Cherry is less emotionally afflicted in comparison. Her pursuit, after all, is not one of self-preservation. Still, to Lustgarten’s credit, she questions her means and motivation, losing in the process some of her heroic, saviouristic confidence. “Is this remotely respectful to this poor dead child, dragging his slowly decaying corpse hither and yon on some wild goose chase?” Is she not selfishly using Omar to make peace with the death of her own son?

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There are other searching questions tucked within the novel, which seem to be simultaneously directed at the reader and self-addressed. What kind of labour does the dead migrant perform in the world, and in literature? Is he still real once he becomes a political symbol, an ethical obligation?

Brave and provocative, goofy, flippant, farcical, droll and deadly earnest, Lustgarten’s novel is comedy as weapon and deep moral inquiry. If it appears at times overrun with jokes, it is all the more subversive for it. As Orwell wrote, “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”

Source: theguardian.com