Reviewed by Tony Malone
Tatiana Salem Levy was one of the writers featured in Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Novelists list a couple of years back, and her debut novel, The House in Smyrna (translated by Alison Entrekin) will certainly add to the growing reputation of contemporary Brazilian literature. It is a mesmerising, at times confusing, tale of a woman on a journey both literal and metaphorical. The reader is in the hands of a nameless narrator, apparently ill, paralysed at times, and the story she tells concerns a key her grandfather has given her, one belonging to the front door of the family house in Turkey.
What follows is a journey to her ancestral home, in search not only of the old house but also of a reason to go on. Crushed by her mother’s death, the young woman is looking to the past in order to find hope for the future, and as she wanders the streets of Istanbul and Smyrna, stories of the past interchange with experiences of the present. For narrator and reader alike, it evolves into a marvellous journey, but be careful – not all is as it seems…
While the novel may sound fairly straightforward, it is actually anything but. The House in Smyrna is a story told in many parts, with one main voice controlling a whole host of ideas. The narrative delights in leaping between sections, some lasting a few pages, some a matter of a sentence or two, and the reader is often unsure as to who is being addressed or discussed, meaning there’s a fair chance you’ll be turning back again and again to find your bearings.
The key strand running through the book is the importance of families, with the narrator’s mother as the second main character. Where much of the first part of the novel focuses on her illness and death, the longer the book progresses, the more we learn about her life, either in the daughter’s monologues or through the conversations the narrator holds in her head:
You know this pain I feel in my body, the weight on my shoulders, is the unforgotten past that I carry with me. The past of generations and generations. No, my child, what you carry on your fragile shoulders are the silences of the past. You carry what has never been uttered, what has never been heard. I warned you, silence is dangerous.
Later, we are gradually admitted into the family’s secrets, learning of the arrival of the narrator’s grandfather in Brazil, and the life his daughter led during times of political unrest.
Outside the family, the main character of the novel is the narrator’s lover, yet another nameless figure who lends a sensual, carnal nature to the book. In a welcome contrast to the painful scenes of the mother’s decline, the writing switches to passages of lust, featuring two young people who can’t keep their hands off each other. Love? Not quite. With their relationship alternating between ecstasy and estrangement, the narrator seems fated to be hurt by her partner just as much as she is in her family life.
However, as intriguing as the story can be, it’s the wonderful writing that makes The House in Smyrna, swinging between measured, languid prose and frantic feverish laments, sensual, passionate and carnal. As much as the story can be attractive and powerful, though, it can also, at times, be rather off-putting:
I feel the secret corroding me, slowly mutilating me. It’s a terrible, monstrous secret; there is nothing even remotely beautiful about it. It stinks more than sulphur, more than rotten food, more than a sick person’s vomit. If I could hold it in my hands, it would be as viscous as phlegm, as a secretion.
Whether seductive or descriptive, the language is used to draw the reader in. There’s frequently a claustrophobic feel, with the reader trapped inside the narrator’s head.
Part of the charm of the novel lies in following the narrator on her journey, watching her wander through the Turkish streets. Despite her background, she’s a tourist like any other (one who requires a visa), but her heritage enables her to make a connection with what she sees, particularly when it comes to her visit to the Blue Mosque:
I forgot everything around me: the heat, the unpleasant smell, the hordes of tourists and street vendors. I forgot the reason for my journey: the key, the door, my grandfather, the past. It was just me and the mosque, as in all great love stories. We were eternal for a few seconds: the mosque, staring at me in its nigh almightiness, and I, staring at the mosque in my patent fragility.
Once the locals learn of her roots, she is treated like a prodigal daughter, the truth of her roots shown in her features. Perhaps, this long-delayed journey is a final homecoming of sorts.
There is, however, one aspect of the novel that (deliberately) remains confusing, with the narrator claiming several times that the whole story is merely in her head. The ‘illness’ the narrator suffers from is suitably vague, leaving the reader unsure as to whether the journey to Smyrna ever happened at all. These occasional claims, unsettle the reader, leading us to question everything which has happened up to that point, forcing us to re-examine sections for hints as to the ‘true’ story. As unreliable narrators go, this is certainly someone you would be unwise to trust fully.
So, is The House in Smyrna a story of what is or what should have been? In truth, it doesn’t really matter that much. What is important is that Salem Levy’s wonderful writing compels us to invest in a character we can never really see completely, a woman hidden away in plain sight. Since this debut, Salem Levy has produced two more novels – let’s hope the wave of Brazilian literature continues to surge into the Anglophone world, and that it brings more from the writer in its wake.
Tony Malone lives in Melbourne and blogs at Tony’s Reading List where he concentrates on literature in translation.
Tatiana Salem Levy, The House in Smyrna, trans. Alison Entrekin (Scribe Publications: Melbourne, 2015) UK edition July 2015. 9781922247971, 160pp., paperback.
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