A Lifeline to Greece: On Homero Aridjis’s “Smyrna in Flames”

December 18, 2021   •   By Stephanos Papadopoulos

Smyrna in Flames

Homero Aridjis

ON THE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS page at the end of Homero Aridjis’s recently translated novel, Smyrna in Flames, the author admits:

“Almost a hundred years after the atrocities committed by Kemalist forces against Christians; before the demented pyromania of those who reduced Smyrna, the City of Tolerance, to ashes, along with its inhabitants; before the delirium of destruction that possessed the Turks during those days in September 1922, I still cannot find the words to explain, to myself or to others, the Turkish genocide of Asia Minor.”

Aridjis is not alone in this predicament, even after more than 100 pages of prose, the tragedy of the Greek Genocide (1914–’22) remains inexplicable. Few have been able to fully grasp the murderous scale of the events, paired with modern Turkey’s blanket denial, and the complete indifference of much of the rest of the world. But the facts remain: in the early century, Atatürk’s plan to unify the fractured Ottoman Empire under a modern Turkish regime resulted in the systematic extermination of its indigenous Pontic Greek, Assyrian, and Armenian citizens, whose people had lived in Asia Minor for millennia. What began as the Armenian Genocide in 1915 culminated in the forced deportations and final massacre of Pontic Greeks during the burning of Smyrna in 1922. The Treaty of Lausanne, pieced together a year later by the Western Allies, decided on a “population exchange” amnesty for war crimes and the redrawn borders of the former Ottoman Empire, soon to be modern Turkey. The wording of the treaty is a chilling reminder of the pawns of war:

As from the 1st May, 1923, there shall take place a compulsory exchange of Turkish nationals of the Greek Orthodox religion established in Turkish territory, and of Greek nationals of the Moslem religion established in Greek territory.

These persons shall not return to live in Turkey or Greece respectively without the authorisation of the Turkish Government or of the Greek Government respectively.

Time and journalism tend to coat the past in a thin veneer of abstraction. Murders become “casualties,” the rape and evisceration of women become “atrocities” and “war crimes,” and the dates themselves slip into the time capsule of the early century, with all its other wars and upheavals. The Black Sea is often confused with the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, or the Marmara Sea. The Armenian Genocide bleeds (literally) into the Greek Genocide, the great diaspora, and the infamous Treaty of Lausanne. To put it mildly, the history of Greek Asia Minor is drastically misunderstood. The layperson hearing remotely of “The Great Catastrophe of 1922” or “The Great Idea” rarely comprehends the events that led to the former Greek cities of Ionia being swallowed by the Ottoman Empire and eventually modern Turkey.

Currently, the omnipresent portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk still hangs in practically every Turkish government office, as well as private homes, schools, restaurants, and truck stops. His specter still presides with authority over much of modern Turkey. He is seen as a brilliant political and military strategist (which he was) as well as Turkey’s great modern reformer (which he was). He is rarely described as a calculating and murderous military commander, who reformed Turkey by ethnic cleansing and one of the most overt violations of human rights in modern history (which he did). Even recently, those open-minded Turks who have suggested addressing the issue have ended up in prison or facing questionable courts that address “national ethics,” including Turkey’s most recent Nobel Literature laureate, Orhan Pamuk.

In this fictionalized memoir, Aridjis attempts to lift the obscuring veil and write directly, if brutally, about what exactly happened over the fateful week of September 13–19, 1922, when Kemal Atatürk’s forces descended on the city of Smyrna, murdered its Greek and Armenian inhabitants, and set fire to what was left, all while French, Russian, English, and American ships watched idly, anchored in the harbor. Thousands of refugees, mostly women and children, mobbed the docks in a desperate attempt to climb into fishing boats and escape. Faced with Turkish bayonets and bullets on one side, the entire city in flames on the other, a boat was the last chance for survival. Very few made it out alive. Aridjis picks up where the world failed. As a young journalist for The Toronto Star, Ernest Hemingway was stationed in Asia Minor and sent dispatches about the plight of the Greek refugees. But it wasn’t Hemingway’s fight; his heart wasn’t in it. These brief dispatches were described as “frivolous reportage” by Aridjis, as were the accounts of the French writer Pierre Loti, whom he calls “one of the vultures of history.”

Far from a detached military historian, Homero Aridjis is a celebrated Mexican poet, and his own father, Nicias Aridjis, was a captain in the Greek army who witnessed the genocide firsthand. One of the Great Catastrophe’s few survivors, he fled Asia Minor and Greece forever, eventually starting a new life in Contepec, Mexico. Although written in prose, this book is a poet’s account of his ancestry, infused with his father’s tragic, traumatic memories. Mandel Vilar Press, which specializes in what would otherwise be certainly overlooked by major publishers, calls it a “historical novel.” The category is irrelevant, but for me it is a love letter from a father to an unborn son, and a son’s very moving response to a father’s secret account of how his trajectory was shaped by war.

The novelistic elements are there: the elusive figure of Eurydice, a childhood friend and the love of Nicias’s life, the fragments of memory, the voices of classical poets and philosophers haunting him as he walks the streets of Smyrna, evading death. But the book doesn’t feel like a novel, much less a historical novel, nor does it need to. Occasionally the narrative lacks novelistic momentum, and there is, at points, a stiffness to the dialogue, along with some unnecessary repetition. But the book’s power is unmistakable. It lies in its indelible images, and in the very fact that Homero Aridjis, named after the greatest poet of Ionia, returns to his own bloody history by rewriting his father’s memoirs, by giving the dead a voice, by returning the story to its owners. It is a bleak, terrifying, undeniably moving accomplishment.

There are also moments of great poetic intensity, where one sees the poet, Homero, in the prose. In one instance, he describes his grandfather, Theologos, as a man who loved his fig trees with unshakable devotion. Rather than paint his house, or buy nice things, he buys and plants more figs, marveling at every aspect of their beauty. Only a poet would see the roots of those fig trees running through a hundred years of his own splintered family history.

The book draws heavily on the unpublished memoirs Nicias Aridjis left for his children, as well as the indispensable historical records of George Horton, the American consul general in Smyrna, along with a series of well-researched accounts by numerous scholars and historians — too many to name here, but all listed in the acknowledgments. Also woven into the story are the shadows of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the great tragedians, and the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, whose poems of Ionia are unsurpassed. In one awful scene, Aridjis describes Nicias finding the corpse of the owner of the Chez Phryne Bar with a bayonet in his chest and his teeth smashed in. In his hand there is a map on which someone has scratched out the word Smyrna and replaced it with the modern Turkish equivalent, İzmir. On the wall, scrawled in blood, is Cavafy’s poem “Ionic” (here translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard):

That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they are still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

In another account, Nicias falls asleep reading the Odyssey, and dreams of the dead souls emerging from Erebus along with the prophetic figure of Tiresius and the screams of Cassandra, who appears in the form of a Greek child in rags, raped and disfigured by Turkish soldiers. The scenes are relentless, unforgiving. Aridjis forces the reader to watch, to feel the collective pain, to bear witness to what has gone unseen or been forgotten. In the Armenian quarter, Nicias stumbles into a barber shop: “When the interior became visible, Nicias saw a naked woman in the barber’s chair. Her breasts had been sliced off, and one red strap sandal (the other foot was bare) balanced on the footrest. Her throat had been cut with a shaving razor.”

Having been warned by his love Eurydice — “A Greek in Turkey bears death on his eyelashes. Be as crafty as Odysseus” — Nicias does indeed slink through the burning city like a modern Odysseus, repeatedly evading capture and death while trying to reach the harbor, find Eurydice, and board a boat to freedom. His own odyssey though those streets is a testament to humanity’s potential for cruelty. Reading the innumerable depictions of rape, murder, and arson, one feels the gods have truly abandoned their temples, as well as the human race. Aridjis makes no excuses for the Turks, or for the Western powers who turned their backs on the Greeks and Armenians of Asia Minor. He does not look away like the illustrious admirals; he documents with a historian’s determination and a poet’s heart.

I will admit my own personal interest in the subject and my inherent bias. My grandfather was also born in Asia Minor (Trabzon) in 1888 and left the region forever sometime before the Great Catastrophe. His family was later scattered throughout Athens, Northern Greece, and Russia. Common names in my Greek family were Aristoteles, Epaminondas, Constantine, Savas, and Stavros — the Greeks who lost their homeland held on to their past with classical names that reminded them of earlier, better days. Their proud history was a calm island in a sea of chaos. Homero’s family names include Theologos, Penelope, Hermione, Aristidis, Cleomenis, and Nicias. These names were talismans, lifelines that connected the Aridjises to their ancestors, and when Nicias planted his first fig tree in the soil of Contepec, Mexico, he was still digging in the soil of Greece.

Over 15 years ago, I wrote a feature on Homero Aridjis for a Greek American magazine. We spoke on the phone for over an hour, and he told me a personal anecdote that provides fitting contrast to all the dark tragedy of his family’s past. Already famous, with numerous books behind him, Homero returned to the village in Contepec where he was raised, and the locals affectionately called him “Homerito” or “little Homer.” Walking in the countryside he chanced upon a farmer who recognized him and yelled out:

“Hey Homerito! How are you? I read your book!!”

“Which book?”

“The Iliad! When are you going to write another?”

“I already have — it’s called the Odyssey!”

Much credit should be given to Lorna Scott Fox for her fine translation. This is a book written in Spanish about Greeks in Asia Minor. Navigating the poetic metaphors, the classical references, the idiomatic language of Pontic Greek mixed with Turkish is no small feat. Indeed, the author’s and translator’s efforts have produced a heroic book.

¤

Stephanos Papadopoulos is the author of three poetry collections: The Black Sea (Sheep Meadow Press, November 2012), Hôtel-Dieu (Sheep Meadow Press, 2009), and Lost Days (Leviathan Press, UK / Rattapallax Press, NY; 2001).