Where does it all begin? History has no beginnings, for everything that happens becomes the cause or pretext for what occurs afterwards, and this chain of cause and pretext stretches back to the paleolithic age, when the first Cain of one tribe murdered the first Abel of another. All war is fratricide, and there is therefore an infinite chain of blame that winds its circuitous route back and forth across the path and under the feet of every people and every nation, so that a people who are the victims of one time become the victimisers a generation later…
I picked it up at a used book store in Harvard Square while delivering a box of used books to sell. Knowing very little about the history of the Ottoman Empire, I expected at least to be educated. Historical fiction, incidentally, not something I read a whole lot of.
I found out: this is an incredibly sad book.
Reading this book is like wading into a lake of sadness. Sadness of people who aren’t real but are. Towns that aren’t real but are. How else could you teach about the toll of nation-building? This is an immersion up to the chest in tragedy: of an individual sort, of a community, and of a nation.
Personally, I liked the idea of a new Greater Greece, in theory, but I couldn’t see the point of risking anything for it, and I couldn’t stop thinking of the mainlanders as at worst a bunch of crazy foreigners, or at best like embarrassing cousins with too many halfwits in the family. I wasn’t in any kind of mood to die for them, and no one was more surprised than me when they decided to come over and die for us. I can’t say I was very surprised, however, when the fiasco concluded with all of us losing everything, and it was we who died for them… Just as we sensible types feared all along, the romantic enthusiasms of people like Leonidas ended up with peaceable fellows like me drowning in harbours while their cities burned.
[pg. 234 Georgio P. Theodorou]
I found out: The Ottoman empire, though on the decline for many years, actual held together until World War I. This was news to me because I know nothing about history of any sort. Sorry.
The Ottoman empire, surprisingly religiously tolerant and pluralistic at the time, was home to Christian Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, and even Jews. A community might speak Turkish, or Greek, or Armenian. Many citizens spoke more than one language. The literate might write Turkish with Arabic letters, or Greek with Greek letters, or even Turkish with Greek letters. Mosques and churches were erected alongside one another. Worshippers for the most part went about their separate businesses but might occasionally wander into a service outside their faith. Inter-faith marriage was not unknown.
Then, in midst of a revolution of its own, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Germans.
Your father says that a soldier is like one of the fingers of a potter and his comrades are the other fingers, and the soldiers of the enemy are the fingers of the other hand, and they work in opposition because no pot was ever well made with one hand, and the potter is God, and God moulds the world like clay by means of soldiers, so he says you should be proud to be one of God’s fingers, and if not proud, resigned. Your mother says that it is important to wash your clothes whenever possible or else your skin will become itchy and inflamed. And she says that she wishes you were a child once more and did not have to go off to war.
[pg. 322 Leonidas the teacher]
During the war, atrocities are committed by the Ottomans onto its own Armenian population, under justification of “treachery” on the part of some Armenians. After their defeat, occupied by Allied forces and facing the potential loss of their nation-state, Turks fight for their independence under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal against Greek ambitions for their (historically Greek) land. Greek armed-forces massacre Turkish civilians; then Turkish forces massacre Greek civilians. Christians are deported from the newly created nation of Turkey & muslims from Greece. Mosques and churches left behind are defaced and destroyed. Whole cities go up in flames.
In the book, we wade with our characters ever deeper into the loss and sadness of a-war-they-didn’t-ask-for. The loss of life is both casual and breath-taking. The loss of a beautiful town is both slow and sudden.
For birds with wings nothing changes; they fly where they will and they know nothing about borders and their quarrels are very small.
But we are always confined to earth, no matter how much we climb to the high places and flap our arms. Because we cannot fly, we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us. Because we have no wings we are pushed into struggles and abominations that we did not seek, and then, after all that, the years go by, the mountains are levelled, the valleys rise, the rivers are blocked by sand and the cliffs fall into the sea.