Like with most memoirs, I had trouble cutting the real-life person - Enaiatollah - out of the story. The closest comparison to In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is What is the What by Dave Eggers. That was also "based on a true story" and had a very confessional feel to it (though In the Sea There Are Crocodiles felt a lot more like a transcript, or a direct-to-print record). Both books flirt with the fiction-memoir line in a way that mostly just ignores the standards of both genres and creates something new and different. The thing is, Eggers managed to distance himself from the story fairly well. What is the What almost felt like a novel - there was a bigger story and there were characters we got to know and care about. In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is - by definition - not that kind of book. Enaiatollah presents his story in the most simplistic and stripped down manner, sometimes even childishly. There's no embellishment, nothing of what we would expect to see in a novel. He even says to Geda at some point:
Facts are important. The story is important. It's what happens to you that changes your life, not where or who with.I can't begin to explain how that sentence skewed the way in which I read In the Sea There Are Crocodiles. Maybe it's because I completely disagree with statement in terms of my own life, but the moment Enaiatollah said this to Geda (and repeatedly insisted that the characters were interchangeable and that it didn't matter who did what and why, just that they did), I started to see In the Sea There Are Crocodiles in a very different light.
As a story, I cannot fault In the Sea There Are Crocodiles. It's cleanly written and presented, and very interesting. It's the kind of story that takes you to new and unfamiliar places and will put your emotions through a meat grinder. It's hard not to get involved in the story, just like it's hard not to want to know what will ultimately happen to Enaiatollah. His life, his observations, his horrors - they all come alive through Geda's crisp writing. But as a book? Even as a memoir, In the Sea There Are Crocodiles falls behind. It's vaguely like a children's book in that regard - you're given the story, but not the feelings. Enaiatollah never fully came to life and at times it was hard to imagine his world because he repeatedly insisted that it was irrelevant.
The truth is that perhaps it is irrelevant. To him. To the person telling the story, I can easily imagine how there might be little need to talk about the children who died or what kinds places he was at. But for me as a reader, it was hard to read a book that feels and tastes like fiction, but let it slide on things I normally wouldn't let slide.
At the end of the day, the fictionalized memoir is one of the hardest genre to critique. I have no qualms with the story (obviously), nor with its presentation. It was with the presentation of the characters and the world that I felt was skewed, and with the vague attitude of the narrator that I struggled with. There's much to recommend in In the Sea There Are Crocodiles and as a story it works excellently. My personal disagreement with the narrator regarding the nature of storytelling may have meant that I enjoyed this book far less than other readers have, but I certainly came away from it knowing more about the world. I only wish that I could have known more about the boy behind the story.