Lost On Earth

Craig Seligman reviews 'Lost on Earth: Nomads of the New World' by Mark Fritz

Published March 24, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| "Lost on Earth," Mark Fritz's survey of the lives of contemporary refugees, reads like a volume of beautifully imagined short stories, and its addictive quality makes me wonder whether I loved it for the wrong reasons. Of course, they're the right reasons, too. In showing us the people usually reduced to terrible statistics -- in the mid-1990s, Fritz reports, roughly one out of every 100 people on the planet was forcibly uprooted from home -- he makes all those foreign tragedies that clot the opening pages of the newspaper immediate and real. And he isn't simply compassionate: Beyond the gift of empathy he has an invaluable knack for liking his troubled subjects. As in "Angela's Ashes," the sparkle of personality turns a book you might expect to be unrelentingly grim into one that you don't want to end.

Fritz's characters include the displaced as well as the bureaucrats and the aid workers whose sometimes hopeless job it is to help them out. He introduces us to a Mozambican guest worker in East Germany who finds himself the object of hatred when refugees start to flood the country, and to one of those refugees, a Togolese programmer fleeing the murderous wrath of his government, who is bewildered to find himself persecuted and despised in the land where he sought safe haven. He shows us the disaster in Somalia from the standpoint of a well-to-do Mogadishu contractor and of a nurse working under the auspices of Doctors Without Borders. He lays out the chaos in Liberia (somehow making sense of an almost laughably complicated war) as it's witnessed by an enterprising mechanical engineer whose career and family unravel along with his country.

Fritz depicts the horrors in Rwanda (his dispatches from that country for the Associated Press won him the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting) through the eyes of a Tutsi girl running from the slaughter in her village and from those of a soldier in the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front. His culminating chapter, on Bosnia, begins with a Muslim woman's memory of the bakery she worked in as a girl. One day an odd stranger came in; she turned out to be a native of Banja Luka returning to the town after many years, and she recalled for the girl the black morning that she came into the bakery and was told, "You cannot buy here because you are Jewish!" The girl can't imagine an era of such heartless bigotry. She has no idea, of course, that the day will come when she'll find herself in the old woman's shoes.

Fritz doesn't hector, but it's hard to argue with the dry-eyed humanitarianism of his view that "the fundamental problem [is] stopping the fighting so the noncombatants [can] simply stop running, and therefore stop dying ... Maybe the wisest solution is simply to step in fast, break up the fight and separate the combatants before too many people get hurt, rather than agonize over how they can be taught to live together. Because maybe they can't." How, you wonder after reading these stories, can we not intervene? Fritz doesn't strain for pathos or for any other effects. He's a gifted writer and his style is literary in the best sense, but he seems to have something more urgent than art on his mind, and to this end he avails himself of the ideal strategy for putting across his point of view: He shows that those others, those statistics, those faraway unfortunates, are no different, except in their circumstances, from you and me.

By Craig Seligman

Craig Seligman is the author of "Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me," and an editor at Absolute New York.

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