Ali Smith – The Go-Between

About sixty years ago, the United Nations took a moral stand against human rights crimes and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a proclamation of thirty rights that belong to us all, starting memorably with Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal.” The British writer, Ali Smith, has found much inspiration in Article 13 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that everybody has the right to freedom of movement within the borders of each state. She wrote the short story “The Go-Between” to celebrate the anniversary of the proclamation.

In the short story we follow the protagonist who is a 33-year-old man. Originally he is from Cameroon, but now he is in Ceuta in Northern Morocco where he helps people to get over the border fence to Spain. He is a so-called border crosser, a mediator between the French Doctors and the refugees — he is the “Go-Between”. The short story problematizes the fact that refugees who have been forbidden to cross the border get help from the protagonist, which is not in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14 also says that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. This is not accommodated in this story where the refugees are sent back as soon as they arrive in Europe. Because of the protagonist’s help we hear about the refugees’ ecstatic yells when they reach their goal: Europe. But the big question is: What is his own perception of Europe? To answer this we must take a closer look at him.

The protagonist has had a rough past. He has seen a lot of horrifying torture done to the people who cross the borderline, and he has lost the upper part of his ear getting over the fence and his third finger on an underwater fence as well. On the one hand he seems to despise Europe — especially the police office: ”They took all the food they found” (l. 56) and they ”left them with no water” (l. 57). He claims not to have the ”Spanish blindness” as some refugees have: ”I don’t have this particular blindness.” (l. 76). On the other hand he dreams about “walking down the big streets of Madrid with their fine stately buildings” (l. 112). This shows his immediate fascination of Europe, but in his dream he ends up spilling a litter of himself, which spoils the streets of Spain. This shows his inner confusion: Europe is the symbol of freedom and possibilities, but nevertheless you loose some of yourself when you are forced to move from your home. In other words he has a hard time figuring out where to go and where to live, and when he finally is on the Spanish side of the border he just stays there, right beside the border, instead of finding a place to live. In the end he describes how he walks down the street without anyone noticing him and he describes how he keeps his ears covered and his hand folded so that no one will notice the loss in it: “I wear my hat down over my ears. I keep my hand folded so no one sees the loss in it.” (l. 124-125).

Regardless of his own ambivalent feelings about Europe he helps other people to pursue their freedom in Europe, because he knows that you don’t leave your home unless you are forced to: “Nobody leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” (l. 80). This quote depicts that he was forced to move and actually didn’t want to, and this might be why he helps other refugees escaping to Europe. They are forced to move like he was, and he gives them the help he didn’t get.

The short story is written in the first person and in an exposed and authentic way, which involves the reader into the protagonist’s thoughts and feeling. For instance the insertion, “I was telling you about the fences” (l. 81) followed by descriptions about the fences makes the reader feel being in a conversation with the protagonist. This leads to the fact that it’s not written in a structured way – directly opposite. He is very flighty, structure-less, messy and metaphoric in his way of telling the story, which makes it look like a stream of thoughts. It makes the reader both confused but also intrigued.

The tone in the short story is very tragicomic. For instance the protagonist in the end describes him self with the words: “I’m a small, slight man” (l. 120) followed by the self ironic fact: “Philosophical Professor Me.” (l. 123). This expression probably shows that the protagonist lives a very tragic life and because of that he has to maintain a happy facade not to break down. His tragic life is expanded in the end where he describes himself as a thirty-three year old mature and unnoticeable man. “You could walk past me in the street and not see. I’ve only a slight limp, not noticeable.” (l. 124-125), he says.

Altogether the short story shows the refugees’ hard conditions. Through the protagonist we hear about the existing seamy side: The torture, the inhumanity and the unfairness against the innocent refugees. It clarifies how problematic it is for refugees not to be able to flee from dangerous places.

Even though the West is one of the greatest advocates for the Human Rights, in this story it seems that they are turning the blind eye to the inhuman treatment of the refugees, since it is the European border police that performs the torture.

The protagonist’s final degrading comments about him self (l. 120-125) contrasts with Article 1 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal.” It shows the huge necessity of the proclamation — and it shows that it is not enough just to rest on the proclamation — the proclamation has to be accomplished.

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