Dedicated to “the unhappy memory of the millions of civilians on all sides who became victims of the numerous death marches, movements of refugees, campaigns of persecution and extermination, and exchanges of population”, it brings to life a convulsive period throughout Asia Minor.
The story revolves around inhabitants of the fictional town of Eskibahçe (apparently based on Kayaköy on the southwest coast of Anatolia), with vivid vignettes evoking how the lives of the town’s Christian and Muslim inhabitants were intertwined. Not that such coexistence was without tensions—on the antecedents of the wider catastrophe, De Bernières notes
There was between 1821 and 1913 a prolonged and atrocious holocaust which we have chosen to forget, and from which we have learned absolutely nothing.
Still, life in Eskibahçe had been largely tranquil—until
The machinations of the Great Powers, and the immemorial turbulence of the Balkans, had dragged the Ottoman state from one impoverishing, bruising, and demoralising war to another. Those who were conscripted found themselves serving for indefinite numbers of years in vile and hostile places hundreds of miles from home, whilst the womenfolk broke their own health in the desperate attempt to run their farms and homes alone.
The stories are interwoven with that of Mustafa Kemal, who became the national founder Atatürk—narrated in the historical present (a device that usually Gets my Goat). Eskibahçe scenes are also interspersed with visits to cosmopolitan Smyrna and Istanbul.
A trifling incident results in the humiliation of Levon the Armenian:
There was not a single one of those there who would not have helped Levon if they had found him injured by the side of the road, but as a mob they were individually not a wit superior to hyenas.
De Bernières gives a succinct account of rising tensions with the Armenians in east Anatolia, before troops arrive to deport Levon along with the minority of Armenian families in the village.
The centrepiece of the novel is the Gallipoli campaign, with Iskander the Potter’s son Karatavuk evoking in hideous detail his time serving at the front.
Later in the book the author incorporates some neat links with his earlier Captain Corelli’s mandolin.
Even by 1916,
Little remained the same. In Eskibahçe the work was being done by children, the women, the very old, and the few men who had returned crippled from active service. All the townspeople were half starved, and most of them were desperate. The stock was regularly rustled by gangs of deserters, and there were those who stole from their neighbours’ fields, even though the punishment for being caught was absolute and condign. […]
The town evinced its economic and moral decline in its very appearance. The dilapidated streets remained uncleaned, broken shutters hung at drunken angles from torn window frames, and the cheerful pastel paintwork of walls and woodwork had long since begun to peel away. The stray dogs, no longer benignly supplied with crusts of bread by the kind-hearted, died in the streets and rotted there, filling the air with the same pervasive, sweet, and rich stink of death that had supplanted the scent of satisfied earth and wild flowers all across the disfigured fields of Europe. […]
The few shops that opened had almost nothing to sell, and no-one had any money with which to buy. Some of the ones that used to belong to the Armenians had been looted. The wonderfully varied stalls that used to make the meydan almost impassable were sagging on their trestles, unused and unmaintained.
And yet worse was to come, as Greek and Turkish forces descended into a cycle of vicious atrocities, culminating in 1922–3 with the forced Christian–Muslim population expulsions between Greece and Turkey. Again, de Bernières manages to explain both the wider political picture and the personal stories of Eskibahçe townsfolk as they too are engulfed in the cataclysm. With the surviving community impoverished by the loss of its Christian neighbours, the story of Philothei and Ibrahim makes a tragic dénouement.
A postscript on the (real) nearby town of Fethiye (Telmessos) jolts us to the glib tourism of the present day.
In conjunction with historical studies such as Twice a stranger, such well-written fiction as this, blending macro and micro perspectives, is both moving and revealing, reminding us of the human suffering that grand political agendas inflict.