There you go again, narrating through a prism of pain

Dear Tatiana,

Your novel The House in Smyrna (tr. Alison Entrekin, 2015; originally published in Portuguese in 2007) was a puzzling read for me. And not a confortable one – which, I may add, I generally take as a good reading experience, like a cup of strong coffee, served without sugar and very hot, and drunk all at once, so that its burning feeling is as much as an aftertaste as the coffee itself.

You present us with an autoficcional narrative, fragmented into many intertwined histories/ stories: the  protagonist’s ancestors’ Jewish Diaspora, from Portugal to Turkey; her grandfather’s immigration from Turkey to Brazil in the early twentieth century;her parents’ exile in Portugal during the Brazilian dictatorship in the 60’s; her birth in Lisbon, and their subsequent return to Rio de Janeiro in the 80’s; and, finally, her personal journey, as an adult, to Turkey and Europe, in search of her origins.

The novel is narrated in first person by the nameless protagonist, a woman filled with self-hatred, who is apparently suffering from a crippling but unknown disease which leaves her paralysed in bed and unable to write. Her grandfather has given her the key to his old family house in Turkey, urging her to retrace his steps and go back to his country of origin. After her mother’s painful death, and following up an increasingly abusive love relationship, the protagonist embarks on a quest for the house in Smyrna, a quest for home and identity, for a place where the key she is carrying would finally fit – and, ultimately, a quest for the very key itself which will open the protagonist herself up to the world from which she had retreated.

The narrator, however, is an unreliable one, and she seems to be at the same time trapped in bed and wandering the streets of Istanbul and Smyrna. As her internal and physical journey are intertwined, so are her past and present, and her family’s many histories/ stories. The narrative is fragmented not only in space and time, but also in its speech form: internal monologues, dialogues, and the conversations the narrator holds in her head with her deceased mother and her abusive lover – all of those are intertwined, but conveyed in small doses, like the pieces of a puzzle.

Strangely enough, this puzzle is not a static one, but keeps changing in form and tone, as if its pieces were made of some very soft material and shaped by hand, changing its outline at every small movement of the fingers, as the protagonist’s journey goes on, like a moving kaleidoscope. That could be an allegory for the fact that any notion of identity and homeland is impermanent and erratic. Moreover, this moving kaleidoscope can also be a depiction of the vulnerability of one’s own memory. The fragmented narrative mimics the very act of remembering, jumping from one story to another, blurring the edges, breaking past and present into pieces, losing some of them and weaving the rest out of order, with most invisible thread. One’s search for identity can be, after all, as brittle as one’s attempt to remember, or even as one’s desire to belong.

In the alternating dialogues with her dead mother, the protagonist is talking to a ghost, which mirrors her internal struggle with a past that is lost, and with her family history. The mother’s voice is layered upon the narrotor’s voice, disrupting her account and retracing her steps. The narrator herself blurs the lines between past and present,  between Brazil, Portugal and Turkey, reality and fiction, as well as the lines between one character and another. They are mostly unnamed, addressed as ‘you’. Who is she talking to, who is this ‘you’ she keeps on summoning up? Her mother, her lover, her grandfather, the protagonist herself? What happened first? The travel to Turkey, to Lisbon, her imobility in Brazil, her sexual assault, her mother’s death? Are those flashbacks of her mother being tortured by the military during the dictatorship, or flashbacks of the protagonist herself, as she was being sexually abused? The body crippled in bed: does it belong to the protagonist, or to her dying mother? The pain the protagonist feels: is it really physical? Is it a projection of her mother’s suffering – past and present – on the protagonist herself? Does the troubled relationship with her mother mirror the narrator’s abusive love affair? So many lines are blurring here.

We don’t even know whether the travel to Turkey was real. If the protagonist is paralysed in bed, it could have been an imagined trip, or even a dream. Was this travel a trap set out by her grandfather? Was it a depiction of the writing process? The travel could also be only an allegory for the internal process of trying to understand her own self and of coming to terms with her past. Even the disease she is suffering from could be metaphorical, some kind of ‘writer’s block’. This could be a travel from inside out, in which, despite not being able to move from bed, one finds himself on a physical journey through the recovery from pain and sickness. “This journey is a lie: I’ve never left this musty bed. My body rots a little more each day, I’m riddled with pustules, and soon I’ll be nothing but bones…”

The fragmented narrative has a dream-like quality, as if the story was made of a series of contiguous nightmares, blurring one another. It feels often claustrophobic, as if we were blindfolded and trapped inside the narrator’s head, as she herself is trapped in bed, trapped in her past, in her body, her identity. Not surprisingly, the protagonist frequently has nightmares about being locked in her grandfather’s house in Smyrna.

Woven through the scenes of her mother’s terminal illness is the narrative of the protagonist’s blasts of lust, as well as the scenes in which she is sexually assaulted – scenes as raw and throbbing as the alluded torture of political dissidents during the dictatorship. Sex and sickness are the means by which the body is degraded to the point of paralysis: ‘covered with sores, riddled with holes, filled with pus, with its acidic smell’; ‘dilacerated, covered in open wounds’. Like a  Kafkaesque character, your protagonist’s body carries its disease as it carries an inheritance: its deformities and the pains it endures speak mostly of its non-resolved past, some kind of ‘open wound’. The journey through pain can thus be as physical as the journey to Turkey.

And it can also be as liberating. The journey to Smyrna – be it imagined or real – is the protagonist’s way of recovering not only from her mysterious illness, but also of overcoming the suffering after her mother’s death and her lover’s abuse. Her journey is also her way of finding a sense of identity. What does it mean to come from an immigrant family which, over many centuries, has had to leave its homeland several times? Furthermore, albeit coming from a wandering family, the narrator is not able to move from her bed: in order to be able to move again, she has to retrace her family’s steps. The quest for her origins is the key to the rebuilding of her identity, which can only be achieve, in her case, through the sense of loss of this same identity brought out by the experience of exile. The protagonist is at once at home and foreign wherever she goes, and hers is a journey to reconcile with this foreignness and with the very need for the journey itself. “I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name. That is 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?”

Yours is also a narrative of contraposing images, contrasts, sharp edges. As well as the narrator wanders through her many identities and voices, the narrative also wanders from lust to pain, mobility to paralysis, going back and forth, and blending everything in the end. Perhaps only a blur could possibly express the full complexity of one’s identity, one’s memory, a country’s troubling history (its wounds maybe still wide open).

Your protagonist brought a key to her journey, but she is also in search of another kind of key. It reminded me of a Portuguese legend, according to which, persecuted by the Inquisition in the Middle Ages and forced to leave their homes, the Jews fled taking with them only the keys to their houses, in the hopes of one day returning to their homeland. Well, I guess your narrator’s journey is your book and your key. But it is also ours, our journey of reading it, of assembling its pieces, and of trying to find a fitting key to understand it.

Yours truly,


Paul Delaroche - Louise Vernet on Her Deathbed [detail]
Paul Delaroche – Louise Vernet on Her Deathbed [detail]

This journey is a lie: I’ve never left this musty bed. My body rots a little more each day, I’m riddled with pustules, and soon I’ll be nothing but bones… How could I undertake such a journey? I have no joints; my bones are fused to one another. The only way I could leave this bed is if someone were to carry, but who would pick up such a repugnant body? What for? I have the silence and solitude of an entire family in me, of generations and generations.

– Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna

I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name. That is 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?

– Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna

There you go again, narrating through a prism of pain. That isn’t what I told you. Exile isn’t necessarily full of suffering. In our case it wasn’t… We were in Portugal, eating well, speaking our own language, meeting people, working, having fun…

– Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna

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.

– Tatiana Salem Levy: The House in Smyrna

About the book

  • Scribe, 2015, tr. Alison Entrekin, 160 p. Goodreads;
  • First published in 2007;
  • Original title: A chave de casa
  • Winner of the São Paulo Prize for Literature 2008;
  • Finalist of the Jabuti Award 2008;
  • My rating: 4,5 stars;
  • This book was read for Women in Translation Month 2016

2 thoughts on “There you go again, narrating through a prism of pain

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