In the words of its native son, Dr. Pietro Bartolo, the Italian island of Lampedusa is “a small piece of the earth’s crust that broke off from Africa and drifted toward Europe.” In recent years, its path across the sea has been traced by hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East who land in Lampedusa on their way to Europe.
From his post on Favoloro Pier, Bartolo awaits them — sometimes treating them for conditions contracted on these brutal journeys, sometimes preparing their bodies for burial.
“Sometimes I think I cannot hold out any longer,” writes Bartolo. “I cannot take this pace of work, and more importantly, I cannot handle this much suffering, this much pain. … You never get used to seeing dead children or women who died giving birth on a wrecked boat, their tiny babies still attached to them by their umbilical cords.”
But he does not look away, and he does not let us look away, either. Women and girls who have been raped, men who have been mutilated, babies whose mothers didn’t make it, people with scabies so severe they are scratching their skin off, corpses pulled from the sea half-eaten by fish.
One craft came in with 250 people on board, weeping and wailing. “We could not understand why: no one was severely ill, and there had been no deaths on board.” Then the doctor opened the boat’s freezer for storing fish — it was filled entirely with the corpses of young people who had suffocated in there, screaming and trying to claw their way out.
It is rare to read about the life of someone like Bartolo in his own words. The journalist Lidia Tilotta, listed as a co-author of “Tears of Salt,” did a fine job of preserving the tone of the doctor’s stories, arranging them in 32 short, plain-spoken sections. Bartolo is the son of a fisherman, one of a family of seven, the only one they could afford to send to school and university on the mainland. He returned, not only because he “needed salty air in his lungs” but because he wanted to live with and work for his people. When the boats full of desperate migrants started coming, his was the only clinic on the island.
Bartolo’s story is also told in last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Fire at Sea.” He is happy about all the attention, but he cannot help noticing that “those who should have done something concrete in response have failed to do so. Instead, borders have been callously reinforced, barriers and insurmountable walls erected.”
Suddenly, Lampedusa feels very near.
Marion Winik is the host of “The Weekly Reader,” a radio show and podcast about books.
Tears of Salt
By: Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta, translated from the Italian by Chenxin Jiang.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 205 pages, $25.95