It took me a little while to come to grips with the voice of the narrator of The House in Smyrna – it’s only fair to let you know from the outset that this novella of only 155 pages takes a bit of re-reading in order to make sense of it. It’s episodic – fragmented, really, and there is a voice either disputing the narrator’s account or consoling her, a voice that the reader can’t identify until page 14, and even then some crucial information is withheld till later on.
There you go again, narrating through the prism of pain. That isn’t what I told you. Exile isn’t necessarily full of suffering. In our case it wasn’t.
There is a lot of pain in this story. The narrator, suffering from some unspecified illness, is in misery:
I write with my hands tied. Here in the stationary solidity of my room, which I haven’t left for the longest time. I write without being able to write, and I write for this. At any rate, I wouldn’t know what to do with this body that has been unable to move ever since it came into the world. Because I was born old, in a wheelchair, with wizened legs, withered arms. I was born with the smell of damp earth, the stale gust of ancient times on my back. (p.1)
The exile that she speaks of is her parents’ flight to escape the persecution of communists under the military dictatorship that ruled in Brazil from 1964 to 1985. They fled to Portugal, where the narrator tells us she was born, and although she is a small child on their return to Portugal when the regime is overthrown, she feels like a displaced person.
I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name. That’s why I am solid, unpolished, still rough. I was born away from myself, away from my land – but when it comes down to it, who am I? What land is mine?
Her grandfather has passed on to her the key to his old home in Turkey, and she decides to invent a destiny for it. She tells the story of her father’s lost love and why he migrated to Brazil; she traces further losses that ensue. She tells the story of her own love and loss and her quest to find the house in Smyrna.
It is very difficult indeed to write about this book without revealing aspects of it that should be left to the reader to discover. There are autobiographical aspects too, which I didn’t know until I read reviews after finishing the book, and I’m glad I didn’t. (I did know from the publisher’s blurb that Levy is one of Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Novelists). I approached this book entirely on its own terms, and found it puzzling but intriguing. Reading it twice was a pleasure.
So I am delighted to have a spare copy to offer as a Book Giveaway. The usual rules apply:
HOW TO ENTER
Be in it to win it! Anyone with an Australian postal address is eligible. Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random generator by the end of February.
All entries from Australian residents will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner. (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met). NB I don’t email winners, you need to keep an eye on the blog or the ANZ LitLovers Facebook page or Twitter.
Author: Tatiana Salem Levy
Title: The House in Smyrna
Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin
Publisher: Scribe, 2015, first published as A chave de casa in 2007
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publishing