Review: Many Rivers To Cross is a timely book and may be the first work of fiction to feature a YesCymru sticker
There’s a quotation by Archbishop Desmond Tutu that goes a long way to explaining where the moral heart of this novel lies: ‘There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.’ So one of the many tales that flow into this book’s very wide confluence concerns a south Walian journalist, David – a man not dissimilar to Moore himself – who travels to Ethiopia as if he’s following Tutu’s advice. There he stumbles whilst walking along a dusty Addis Ababa street and is helped by a coffee seller, a woman who tells him about the fates and fortunes of her sons, who along with so many others have had to leave the Horn of Africa to seek out another life. It’s tempting to say a better life but the book reminds us at so many points about the testing journeys of such refugees who pass through the migrant camps of the Calais “Jungle” or face the challenges of getting through the razor wire, or of clinging onto the undersides of trains or stowing away on long-distance lorries as they seek asylum, refuge or a new beginning.
One of Dylan Moore’s compunctions for writing this book was getting to know refugees in Newport’s Sanctuary project, often as friends. One of them asked him to write his story on his behalf and that was the genesis moment. It is moot to remember that there are some eighty million displaced people in the world at the moment, each one a singular story of leaving or losing a home, of the perils of travel, of porous and hard borders, of welcome and enmity. In redacting some of these tales, as Moore follows some of these journeys in reverse, he therefore shows us the amoeba-like diaspora of our times, as people are pulled or pushed in all directions for a multiplicity of reasons. This is a timely book and urgently so.
Moore’s previous books in some ways anticipate his latest. His first was a simply brilliant piece of pop cultural analysis in which he examined musician Damon Albarn’s Englishness as if it was made up of the same components as a village in Albion. This was followed by a sparkling collection of travel essays Driving Home Both Ways which includes encounters with refugees from Venezuela and Kurdistan. It also takes us to Africa, to the mangrove swamps of the Gulf of Guinea just as the latest volume takes us to the Horn of Africa and to what some see as the very heart of the continent and the cradle of humanity itself. Identity and assimilation are constant themes in Many Rivers to Cross and this time it’s often Welsh identity: Moore believes it to be the first work of fiction to feature a “Yes Cymru” sticker, a small but telling detail in a book which is full of such felicities, from the ‘Live Aid mugs’ to the Chinese-built railways of Africa.
Many Rivers to Cross is a sharply-observed composite novel which deftly splices together many stories, showing us the places where lives obviously overlap or connect in ways that aren’t quite so obvious. In this it reduces the degrees of separation between us all, making the stories of others resemble our own and in doing so engenders sympathy, empathy and understanding. So, the opinionated, boorish gammon of a lorry driver Mike has no idea that the man joining them in the pub quiz has only got there because he hid away on his truck as it crossed into the UK. Aman, turned down for the right to remain seems to take his own life in the muddy waters of the Usk having just befriended Jasmine, a sex worker. Single mother Selam faces life’s challenges but also reaps some of its unexpected rewards.
This busyness is all set against the backdrop of Newport, which seemingly doesn’t appear that often in fiction, with the exception of Alan Roderick’s Astrid books or Erica Woof’s Mud Puppy which came out twenty years ago. And so the Transporter Bridge is an obvious landmark in the volume as are the muddy banks of Usk, glistening like cuts of fresh liver.
For those newcomers to Newport the commonplace is exotic as we find out when asylum seeker Aman tells us that ‘here in Newport I learned to eat fried potatoes with salt and vinegar and then to call them chips and later still to eat them with curry sauce or gravy. One day we even tried the chips with cheese and gravy. Leah said it was a tradition.’ This shock of the new also jolts journalist David on his sojourn to Africa, not least when he slakes his thirst with a bottle of the local beer, which is named after England’s patron saint who is revered in Ethiopia as a talisman who helped them defeat the Italians in the Battle of Adwa in 1896:
I look at Saint George on the beer bottle, text in English and Amharic, the label damp with cold. The saint is depicted as a medieval knight in armour; famously he is slaying a dragon. I scroll Wikipedia on my phone, smiling to note that going by the Western calendar, the Battle of Adwa happened on St David’s Day.
In his new book Dylan Moore amply proves that here is a writer whose antennae are highly sensitive and well attuned to life’s iniquities and pulse, who writes with great heart and compassion, giving voice to those silenced by fear of the Home Office, or the suffocations of poverty or the gnawing ache of absence and home-longing. With so Many Rivers to Cross it is necessary to build a great many bridges and this book, with its clever narrative twists and compelling tale-telling is one such span, one such connection.
Many Rivers to Cross is published by Three Imposters and can be purchased here.