A Book for the Beach

 

EscapeFromSmyrnaThirty-one years ago this August, I gathered my things, mailed off a multitude of books, and flew on Swissair to Istanbul with a Compaq computer under my feet about the size of a small sewing machine. When I arrived, I loaded two taxis with my stuff and made my way to the Dutch consulate, which was located in the headquarters of the old Dutch East India Company on Istiklâl Caddesi (la grande rue de Pera) in Beyoğlu – where I was slated to stay for a week or so in a hostel run by the Dutch Archaeological Institute while I sought housing.

I had spent six weeks at Princeton taking a crash course in Turkey, and I had read whatever I could get my hands on. But I was a neophyte. Fortunately, I knew a graduate student from the University of North Carolina who was working on a dissertation while in Istanbul; and through him, I had been introduced to a couple of archaeologists who were old hands at dealing with life in the city inaugurated as Byzantium and later renamed Constantinople. So the next evening, I dined in the apartment — nearby in Cihangir — that Charles and Marie-Henriette Gates shared with their two young daughters; and they helped me find an apartment from which, through one window, one could see the Bosporus.

I mention all of this because I recently relived the two years that I spent, as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, traveling in Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus and writing about developments in all three places. I was able to do so because, in 2013, the Charles Gates mentioned above published a really splendid novel, set – apart from the flashbacks – on Andros and in Istanbul and Athens in 1982. Charlie, as he is called, and his wife Marie-Henriette teach archaeology at Bilkent University, and they have been there now for a quarter of a century. They know that neck of the woods.

The title of Charlie’s novel is Escape from Smyrna: An Historical Mystery Novel. It recounts a haunting tale regarding an heirloom and the hands through which it has passed. It brings together a Turkish family, an Anglo-Turkish-American family, and a Greek woman of surpassing beauty and talent, all of whom once possessed the heirloom in question. It traces the trajectory of these families and this woman from 1922 when they were all present in Smyrna (modern Izmir) and entangled with one another, and provides an accurate account of what life was like in Istanbul and Athens thirty-four years ago, just before I ventured on the scene.

I will not say more about the complex narrative of the book because that might spoil the pleasure of reading it. I will, however, hazard this. I came to know Istanbul — where most of the action is set — and the Turks who live there very well in the mid-1980s, and I also know Greece and the Greeks tolerably well. Charlie recreates the atmosphere and the patterns of human relations in that world perfectly. He also does a wonderful job of depicting the tourists who swarm through the region and the Arabs who come in search of various creature comforts when the summer heat makes their own countries hard to bear.

Reading the book made me want to go back and wander aimlessly again, and my bet is that — if you were to read it — it would make you want to go there as well. It is a perfect book for the beach, but it is also a serious study of a time, a place, and the peoples who inhabited both. It is hard to put down, and you will find yourself wanting to read it again.

Published in Culture, Entertainment, Literature
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  1. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Paul A. Rahe: I will not say more about the complex narrative of the book because that might spoil the pleasure of reading it. I will, however, hazard this. I came to know Istanbul — where most of the action is set — and the Turks who live there very well in the mid-1980s, and I also know Greece and the Greeks tolerably well. Charlie recreates the atmosphere and the patterns of human relations in that world perfectly. He also does a wonderful job of depicting the tourists who swarm through the region and the Arabs who come in search of various creature comforts when the summer heat makes their own countries hard to bear.

    As someone who was among that swarm earlier this year for a slap-dash trip — wholly worth it, and made so much better thanks to some excellent recommendations from Claire — consider my interest is piqued.

    Added to my Kindle.

    • #1
  2. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    Kindles are wonderful things. Thanks, I have added this to mine as well.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Sounds interesting.

    Paul A. Rahe: …with a Compaq computer under my feet about the size of a small sewing machine.

    I remember those very, very well.

    • #3
  4. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    @PaulARahe

    Arahant:Sounds interesting.

    Paul A. Rahe: …with a Compaq computer under my feet about the size of a small sewing machine.

    I remember those very, very well.

    I managed to smuggle it past customs. The Turks had never seen the like. I later sold it to an American graduate student in Turkey who used it to write his dissertation and continued to use it there for years.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Paul A. Rahe: I later sold it to an American graduate student in Turkey who used it to write his dissertation and continued to use it there for years.

    They were built like the concrete blocks they resembled as one lugged them about.

    • #5
  6. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    @PaulARahe

    Arahant:

    Paul A. Rahe: I later sold it to an American graduate student in Turkey who used it to write his dissertation and continued to use it there for years.

    They were built like the concrete blocks they resembled as one lugged them about.

    I had only one problem with it. To get it to work, I had to buy a box that would stabilize the incoming current — a Regulateur (not spelled in that fashion, however). The years I lived in Istanbul the current varied by neighborhood — 110 here, 220 there — and it was anything but stable. We had running water for only half of the day.

    • #6
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