Tuesday, September 19, 2006


A young Cappadocian family, persecuted by jealous villagers seeks refuge in Smyrna. There, protected aided and abetted by the earthly incarnation of the Assyrian goddess Astarte, the females of that family learn magic and use it to kill, coerce, lie, seduce and otherwise climb their way to the highest echelons of Ottoman Smyrnan society. Years later, after the main protagonist, having killed her husband and fled Smyrna for the safety of Greece dies, her spirit merges with that of her niece and the cycle repeats itself again under Astarte's divine guidance, this time for the greater good, not that of the individual. Quoth Astarte when questioned why she protected those under her tutelage even when they caused suffering to others: "I like my girls to have fun."
There in a nutshell, is the basic plot of the best-selling novel "The Witches of Smyrna," which has taken Greece by storm and is currently being screened as a television serial. Touted as a foray into the world of magical realism, an iconoclastic pursuit in itself given the staid, formulaic and conformity-obsessed condition of Modern Greek literature, it is a multi-faceted novel whose appeal and importance to Greek literature should not be underestimated.
The language employed to convey the story is not particularly inspiring. There are no florid or vivid evocations of the sights, smells and tastes of Ottoman Smyrna. Instead, the author, Mara Meimaridi has adopted an impressionistic, televisual approach: our glimpses into that lost and destroyed world of Ottoman Smyrna, rural Cappadocia and finally Aegina of the 60's are granted to us directly through the eyes of the main protagonists. Thus we don't read about Smyrna. The vivid conversational prose ensures that we are actually there. This unity of the written word with the reader, exemplified by the author having her main protagonist read her aunt's diary in order to understand her life while at the same time uniting their souls in one body, clearly expresses her view of the role of the author. In this, the author is astoundingly skilled.
At the same time, the book is a veritable compendium of Smyrniot phrases and words that have long since fallen out of use in the Greek language. Idiomatic Greek, Turkish and a good deal of Francolevantine words make their appearance in the daily conversation of the characters of the novel, causing the reader to scurry to the vocabulary list at the rear of the book. The author is uncompromising in immersing the reader in her world and it is incumbent upon the reader to assimilate into it. The Greek-Australian reader notes with amusement that the Francolevantine utterances are the most comprehensible as they are parodies of English and French words constructed in the same manner as Gringlish in this country.
It is this melting pot of cultures and languages that permits the author to cast Smyrna as the central topos for the unfolding of her central, syncretistic message, which seems to be vacillate between the unity of womanhood and the ultimate veracity of all paths that lead to Truth. Even Astarte, the Great Mother Goddess, is said to ultimately believe in "the souls of her children." The fruit of the author's painstaking research is a reconstruction of Ottoman society. The veil of time is magically swept aside and we are permitted to glimpse the daily trials of poor Turkish, Armenian and Greek families eking out a living in squalor, the follies, snobbery but also ingenuity of the wealthier classes, the unsettling and ominously predatory manifestation of raw power as wielded by the ruling class of Pashas and Sultans. This is a mythologisation of a demythologized Smyrna that belongs to no one and everyone at the same time. This paradox is best expressed by one of the main protagonists of the work, Katina. Whereas all other refugees cast Smyrna in the romantic light of a lost paradise, Katina curses Smyrna for taking her husband and world away from her, even though, she killed her husband herself. This is a telling and sophisticated fable whose moral points to who really is responsible for the loss of Ottoman Smyrna. Materialism? Willful blindness? Egotism? Racism? Take your pick.
It is in particular Meimaridi's unflinching portrayal of the undercurrent racism underlying the class structure of Smyrna that has caused controversy. She deliberately has her characters make derogatory remarks about their Armenian neighbours, contemptuous comments about Jews and their neighbourhoods and in particular, about the Turks. This has led the author into hot water, with authorities in Turkey suing her Turkish publisher for violating the Turkish law against "insulting Turkishness," especially in regard to her supposedly negative portrayal of Turkish women. Yet while the author does have her Greek characters express their views about Turkish slums and what they consider to be their 'backwardness,' though she portrays the Turks as invariably hostile towards Greeks, she permits her characters to befriend Turks. The Turkish Pasha becomes Katina's friend and protector, as does the wife of the Sultan. The Goddess Astarte herself is incarnated as a wise Turkish woman and in keeping with the central message of the novel, all women, regardless of age, are considered sisters, unless they are at cross-purposes. Greek idle upper-class women, in comparison, get a total flogging from the author while Katina switches effortlessly from being Greek to Turkish depending on her situation. If she does have any identity, it is as a woman and as a Cappadocian. As Astarte says: "Good and evil are the same thing. What is good for you, is evil for someone else." It appears that the paranoid Turkish censors, brought up on kitschy Kemalist propaganda lack the perspicacity to comprehend the symbolism that destroys the dichotomy of good and evil, friend or foe and makes us all fellow sufferers.
One of the central motifs of the novel is witchcraft. It is witchcraft, passed down the female line and transmuted to all worthy women regardless of age that is responsible for the development of the plot. This attempt at magical realism, having its precedent in Petriniotis’ novel: "Christian and Orthodox Turks" where the ghosts of Constantine Paleologos and Mehmet the conqueror roam around the walls of their city is skilled but ultimately fails. The key to magical realism as perfected by such masters of the art as Gabriel Garcia Marquez is to present a scenario that is magical but also somehow despite this, plausible. Marquez' use of magical realism thus underlies the paradoxical and illogical nature of Colombian society. Meimeridi's use of the art certainly does evoke a mystical world whose prime mover is an old Turkish woman living in a slum and whose teaching points and highlights are cleverly secreted in the text and almost overlooked in a first reading, just like the witches' charms which are carefully buried or hidden on the target person. However, Meimaridi destroys the mystery and magic by having Astarte explain herself and how she fits into the cosmos. This coupled, with Katina's implausible travels and inexplicable inactivity upon fleeing Smyrna, her unsubtle merging with her niece and reincarnation render the mystery and high sense of drama charmed into the novel, into little more than high farce. The choice of the Assyrian goddess of lust as "Mother" of all women is also questionable. Surely the native Anatolian Mother Goddess Cybele, a life-death-rebirth deity in whose honour men ritually castrated themselves would have being a more plausible, logical and better fitting choice. On the other hand, Astarte was the goddess of sexuality, fertility and war… qualities that are present in the novel's characters but are inconsistent with the mother protector Astarte is supposed to be.
Meimaridi's portrayal of women in the novel should also be considered carefully. Women are generally portrayed as vulnerable and insecure. The 'unenlightened' ones subject themselves to the whims of their husbands and enjoy a relatively miserable life. On the other hand, the 'enlightened' ones are those who, having had the power of magic handed to them, can influence events and look after themselves despite male hegemony. For them, males are egotistical creatures who cannot love or protect women. As a result, it is incumbent upon every woman to exploit men, their connections, wealth and the opportunities they provide in order to create a better life for themselves and so that when their men fail them, they can look after themselves. Thus Katina bewitches her husband into falling in love with her and doing her bidding. She views her husbands as mere chattels and when she fails to convince her husband to abandon Smyrna, having been magically forewarned of the oncoming catastrophe, she leaves him to his fate. Later, upon her return, seeing him making love to her friend, she kills him. When the ghost of that friend accuses her of murder and tells her she had no right to commit it as she never really loved her husband, Katina retorts: "He was mine. You had no right to take him." Interestingly enough, I have often heard such conceptions of males hinted at and often blatantly stated in conversations among elderly Greek women and Meimaridi's approach to the issue is powerful to say the least. Sometimes, Meimaridis purposely inverts the laws of her magical cosmos. Though men are without the world of magic, she portrays neomartyr Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Smyrna having a telepathic conversation with a mute girl. “Who are you” she asks. “I am a shepherd whose flock is being mistreated,” he replies. “Is that why you have to die?” she enquires. “Yes,” he replies in a reference to an actual historic event, the public torturing and lynching of Chrysostomos by the enraged Turkish mob, that also hints to a power even beyond that Astarte wields.
It is indeed the mark of a truly promising author to evoke in the reader such a powerful sympathy with the character' of her work, especially when those characters are thoroughly unpleasant. Though the novel verges on the Orientalist, this possibly is a reflection of a culture that has turned its back on its Eastern traditions and having been semi-Westernised, is groping tentatively at its exotic past, rather than any prejudice on the author's part. As a first novel then, the "Witches of Smyrna" is superb and a must read for all those who long for a bit of magic in their lives, malevolent or otherwise.
First published in NKEE on 18 September 2006