More than most books I’ve read lately, Loren Edizel’s new novel, The Ghosts of Smyrna challenges the reader to look hard at the author’s intentions. Edizel is the author of the novel Adrift but her new book is, in fact, her first novel, previously published in her native Turkey. It recounts the last years of old Smyrna, once home to a multicultural community spawned by the trade interests of Ottoman Empire — Turkish-speaking Europeans of French, Greek and Italian descent. Quick history lesson: with the fall of the Ottomans at the end of the First World War, Smyrna’s social fabric was also doomed to unravel when Greek invasion provoked the Turkish pushback which created the modern republic of Turkey in 1923. In that battle, the city was razed and many of its inhabitants killed or driven out. The novel is Edizel’s re-imagining of the old city (where her roots lie) and its people in the uneasy period after the First World War and during the Greek-Turkish conflict.
Edizel presents us with a range of characters, some more fully realized than others, all of them engaging: Niko, whose Armenian father Jacob was marched off to a war from which he never returned; Niko’s grandmother, the family matriarch, Maria; his uncle Polycarp, who appears unstable but who manages some pointed observations; Niko’s aunt Elena, an artist who’s loved in vain by the Greek doctor and arms supplier Manolis, and who has a passionate affair with the Turkish radical journalist Nazim. The novel’s point of view resides in each of these characters, creating a panoramic sense of connection that drives the story forward.
Small incidents unfold and only later reveal their importance. When Elena sells her first painting and celebrates with an elegant family dinner, what is evoked is more than joy. It’s something closer to the raising of the dead. “She thought of her brother Jacob, the American who resembled him, the kiss she had enjoyed, and finally the paintings, which had brought on this very moment when Jacob’s presence was felt as though he had returned transformed, never to be torn from their midst again.” In Edizel’s telling, the interconnection of these stories carries as much meaning as the stories themselves — and even more power.
Apart from the city of Smyrna, the story has no traditional “centre.” Yet its anecdotal, discursive nature is at the heart of what the novel is about. Its most poignant and affecting threads are woven by a few strongly-drawn characters, namely Manolis, frustrated in his longing for Elena, her heartfelt love for Nazim who loves her, and the child Niko’s observations of a frightening world.
The novel often makes use of startling language to reveal a character in a new light. Manolis, well-to-do and a Greek partisan uncertain of his cause, reflects in a striking way on the Muslim call to prayer. “As he listened, he heard the solitary struggle that precedes surrender in the man’s voice, as if he had grappled with the great questions of life all night long and finally, at dawn, was crying out for help.” It’s a stunning observation and a foreshadowing of the crisis that will in time overtake him.
Edizel excels at such vivid and sometimes painterly comparisons. “Then the sun sank splendidly,” Niko observes, “the way an enormous juicy orange rolls off a blue tablecloth.” It’s an image that evokes the gods of antiquity who saw the same sunset, the boy’s link to an endless chain of stories about to be shattered.
It’s usually the case that fragmented points of view weaken a narrative, but in this novel, the opposite is true. They are the narrative and their fragmentary nature reflects the fate of a whole society. The final chapters pack a devastating punch, as the frail structure of human life and memory collapse in the cinders of Smyrna. With devastating clarity, we understand that the stories are gone, leaving only the heart and voice of the narrator as witness.
This is a moving and eloquent testament to a lost city and its people and, above all, to the lost connections that give form and shape to life.
The Ghosts of Smyrna by Loren Edizel is published in Toronto by TSAR Publications (2013).