Tracing the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the modern republic of Turkey, this novel alternates the first and third person narratives of a range of characters from the fictional town of Eskibahçe (meaning Garden of Eden) in southwest Turkey with an account of the life of Mustafa Kemal, later Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first leader of modern Turkey.
At the turn of the 20th century, the inhabitants of Eskibahçe comprise Muslim Turks, Christians of Greek origin and Armenians. They live together in relative harmony, forming friendships and inter-marrying. Both Christians and Muslims hedge their bets somewhat, with Muslims asking their Christian friends to offer prayers of intercession and Christians having a profound respect for the local imam. The lives of the inhabitants of Eskibahçe are torn apart by World War I and Turkey’s subsequent war with Greece, together with the Armenian genocide and the forced exile of Turkish Christians to Greece and of Muslim Greeks to Turkey.
In beautiful and accessible prose, de Bernières creates a strong sense of time and place. I found the chapters dealing with the Gallipoli campaign particularly powerful. The story of this WWI campaign is well-known to Australians and New Zealanders, who commemorate the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 as a national day to honour those who have served their country in time of war. It was extremely moving to read an account of the campaign – including an account of the fellowship and respect which grew between the Turkish and the Australian and New Zealand soldiers – from a Turkish point of view. The account of the forced exodus of Armenians in 1915 (and the subsequent Armenian genocide, which in terms of the novel occurs “off-stage”) and that of the expulsion of Greeks from Turkey and of Muslims from Greece after the signing of the “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations” in 1923 are also powerful and moving.
It took me a while to become completely engaged with the characters and the narrative. This is a long novel and de Bernières introduces his characters and builds tension slowly. While there is plenty of humour – a lot of it sardonic - the work is a serious indictment of extreme nationalism, of religious dogma and of war and its atrocities. However, it also explores human resilience and the type of love and friendship which can survive even the horror of war and ethnic and religious conflict . In a sense, Eskibahçe represents a Turkey in which different religious and ethnic communities could live in harmony before the choice to do so was taken away from them. And the tragic love story of the Muslim boy Ibrahim and the Christian girl Philotei which forms part of the narrative represents the tragedy which befell Greek Christians expelled from Turkey to a land which was not their own. In the process of describing the devastation on which this novel centres, de Bernières does not spare himself in criticising those he considers responsible for what occurred.
Before I started reading the novel, I was reasonably familiar with the political situation in Turkey since the 1980s. By reading it I learned a lot about the beginnings of modern Turkey and was able to put what I already knew into historical context. This is not an easy novel to read. However, it made me both laugh and cry and for a patient reader with an interest in 20th century international relations, the novel is a rewarding literary experience. Thanks to my GR friend Chrissie for recommending it to me.