Saturday, September 12, 2020


“She thought: sometime soon she’s going to remember what happened and realise that she’s lost everyone. And then what? Her mind moved over different possibilities… moving laboriously westwards in the hope of refuge, hungry, cold, robbed of little she had… Or being turned away from house after house, begging for shelter on a winter night. But people were better than that, surely? Wasn’t the human race better than that?” 

Philip Pullman, “The Secret Commonwealth.” 

It was the extent of human suffering and the callous manner in which little was done to alleviate it, that preoccupied western modernist authors such as Hemingway, Dos Passos and Miller in their roughly contemporary accounts of the burning of Smyrna. For them, the incendiary material that caused the conflagration was the rotting corpse of western civilization.  

Accounts of agents of western powers observing the death and destruction from the safety of their ships, doing nothing to save lives and indeed, hacking at the limbs of refugees desperate to climb aboard, or pouring hot oil over them, have become enshrined in the Smyrna Holocaust narrative, signifying the moral bankruptcy of the international system. As Arthur Miller wrote: “The peculiar horror which clings to this catastrophe is due not alone to the savagery and barbarism of the Turks but to the supine acquiescence of the big powers… And as long as human beings can sit and watch with hands folded while their fellow-men are tortured and butchered so long will civilisation be a hollow mockery, a wordy phantom suspended like a mirage above a sea of murdered carcasses.” 

This form of detachment, which is tantamount to complicity in the crime itself, would be repeated time and time again, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Burma and elsewhere undermining the discourse of social evolution and indeed of the superiority of “Western” civilization and it is probably for this reason that a “blame the victim” attitude towards Smyrna has been adopted by many western countries, in which the genocide of the native Greeks of Asia Minor and the destruction of Smyrna was somehow justified because the Greek army “invaded” Turkey. Such a misrepresentation of the history thus serves to exculpate those Powers for their cynical apathy and indifference to human suffering, for, in adopting such a perspective, the victims are dehumanized. It permits them once more to assert their dubious moral credentials. 

What if we could go back and remove the Western World’s original sin however? What if, instead of standing idly by, the western powers, moved by the horrific distress of those fleeing Smyrna, made a concerted effort to save the lives of refugees? How different would the world have been in the aftermath of the implementation of such a moral imperative? 

It is this question which Philip Pullman considers in his fantasy novel ‘The Secret Commonwealth,” in which recounts the further adventures and evolving maturity of Lyra, heroine of “The Golden Compass.”  In the chapter “The Smyrna Ferry,” Lyra is travelling to Smyrna on a ferry at a time when religious fanatics are indulging in full scale genocide of the Anatolian hinterland, driving desperate people to the coast. Suddenly the ferry collides with a boat of refugees fleeing the city. Pullman’s recounting of his alternate reality is eerily identical to contemporary accounts of the Smyrna Catastrophe: 

“And Lyra, looking down where the last speaker was pointing, saw planks, broken wood, a lifebelt, other unidentifiable detritus from a shattered boat. And people –bodies in the water – heads, faces, arms, screaming, waving, sinking and struggling up again… it became clear that the ferry had run down this smaller boat.. and that the boat was carrying a large number of passengers…. The whole side of the boat has now drifted into view, lying dead in the water, with a dozen or so men and women clinging to it.” 

Whereas in his famous short story “On the Quai at Smyrna,” Ernest Hemingway provides a harrowing account of how desperate mothers strove to keep their babies alive and refused to accept their death, Philip Pullman has Lyra witness the following: 

“A woman kept trying to push a baby up onto [the boat], herself sinking below the water every time she tried, and the baby was screaming and struggling, and no one helped...” 

At this stage in her life, Lyra is experiencing a spiritual crisis. She has subscribed to the belief that rationality is the only proper way to understand the universe, this putting her at odds with her soul/conscience, which in her world, takes the form of an animal familiar. From a rational point of view, she could turn a blind eye, consider that it is logically impossible to save so many drowning people, or conclude that the calamity unfolding around her is none of her business and that it is not her place to becoming involved in it. Instead, witnessing the woman sink under the surface, “leaving the baby still struggling, its little voice choked with water,” Lyra cannot stop herself from crying out: “Help her! Help her!” 

Rather than being ineffectual, Lyra’s principled intervention is of great consequence. Deckhands scramble to lower lifeboats into the water to save the drowning refugees. Lyra unconsciously takes control of the operation, directing the sailors to various locations where the refugees were floundering.  

In one poignant scene, Lyra does not hesitate to take on a person of authority, an office, yelling: “Look! More people on this side! They need a lifeboat here too!” Pullman describes how the officer gives her “a look of revulsion…[saying]…something angry,” but nonetheless, he acquiesces in her request, instructing his deckhands to continue the rescue operation. 

Having rescued the survivors, Lyra now has the opportunity to assess them: “They were mostly young men, but there were women and children too, people of every age. Their clothes were poor and thin, and though one or two clung to rucksacks… they had no possessions at all… Was this happening all over Europe?” 

In contrast to Dos Passos and Hemingway’s emphasis on the inhumanity of the indifferent bystander, Pullman peoples his work with passionate, empathetic people of conviction, who by will alone can make a difference: 

“Alison was everywhere, calling instructions to the crew, comforting a frightened mother, enfolding a baby in a blanket snatched from a passenger, calling for the ship’s cook and demanding hot drinks, hot soup, bread   and cheese for the  survivors, some of whom seemed to be near to starvation. Lyra followed and helped carry out her instructions, giving out blankets, picking up a baby that seemed to belong to no one and was too frightened or too shocked even to cry, and rocking it on her breast.” 

In contrast with the real world of Machiavellian realpolitik, in Pullman’s world, compassion and basic humanity is the foundation of reason:  

“Well it’s common sense. Work it out. Get the child dry and clean and warm before you do anything else.” 

As is the case with the original Smyrnan refugees, Pullman’s refugees, even though they are “Anatolian” find safety in Greece: “The refugees will go ashore here, no doubt. I don’t expect the Greeks will refuse to let them land. They’ll take them to the mainland eventually and they’ll settle somewhere.” 

The failure of the venal European powers to act and come to the aid the Smyrnan refugees created a moral vacuum that arguably led to the rise of totalitarianism and undermined any concerted effort to create a concert of nations that could impartially implement International Law. A by-product of this cynical self-interest is those powers’ refusal to take the perpetrator to task or even recognize the enormity of its crime, allowing its successors to threaten to commit the same crimes again in the present, with impunity. 

Pullman, on the other hand, has constructed an alternate world in which individuals are responsible for moral choices that empower them in ways unforeseen and ultimately, redeem all of humanity. In this way, they subvert the “powers that be” and become powers themselves: 

“I’ve decided I should go ashore to see that they’re looked after properly. I’ve got no authority; all I can do is boss people, but it seems to work.” 

In Lyra’s world, the fate of Smyrna remains unknown and Lyra, who is comforted in ways unforeseen by those she set out to save and comfort, continues her mission. Yet Pullman’s inspired re-imagining of the great humanitarian and moral catastrophe of Smyrna, unique in world literature, is a cry of protest against all those who remain indifferent to the plight of fellow humans and do nothing to alleviate their suffering. Where the western sailors of 1922 pushed refugees into the sea, a Hungarian camerawoman of 2017 kicked a young refugee girl and tripped a man running with a child in his arms. 

Ever in the face of carnage, and while confronting the depths of human depravity, Pullman, through Lyra in “The Secret Commonwealth,” offers a salvific path that juxtaposes the historical alienation of the modern man from his ethical palette in 1922, against the regaining of a moral compass in these simple words towards the end of the “Ferry at Smyrna” chapter:  

“Can I do anything to help?” 

A Golden Compass indeed. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 September 2020