Defne Suman’s THE SILENCE OF SCHEHERAZADE, or Searching for the Voice of the City of Smyrna

A copy of this book has been provided in exchange for a review.

Smyrna (modern name: Izmir) is one of the oldest cities in the world. Located on the Anatolian coast of present-day Turkey, Smyrna traces its history back 5,000 years, making it a contemporary to the fabled city of Troy, located not far away. Smyrna is mentioned in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation when Jesus tells the book’s supposed author, John of Patmos, to send messages to the Seven Churches of Asia.

Destroyed in the 7th century BCE, Smyrna was reestablished in the 4th century BCE by none other than Alexander the Great. Over the centuries, Smyrna grew to experience prosperity, tragedy, conquest, and liberation all the way to the early 20th century when the Greco-Turkish War, fought in 1919–1922 as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, caused excessive damage to the city and forced a large part of its population to flee and never return.

Book cover of Defne Suman's novel The Silence of Scheherazade showing a the blue profile of a woman behind green vines and against a yellow background.

The events of the Greco-Turkish War and their impact on the city of Smyrna serves as the backdrop to Defne Suman’s novel, The Silence of Scheherazade (Head of Zeus, 2021), translated into English by Betsy Göksel. Told in hindsight by a mysterious woman given the name of Scheherazade as a child, the story focuses on four families and their lives leading up to the disaster. Among these many individuals, Scheherazade pays particular attention to her mother, a woman she never knew. Born out of wedlock, Scheherazade was given to another family, and as a result the girl became mute, her new name a cruel historical joke.

Time and again, Scheherazade describes the city where she was born–Smyrna. She wants to convey the magic and mystery of this ancient place, to share what she experienced and what she remembers. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Smyrna was still a multicultural and multiethnic city where the inhabitants spoke several languages out of necessity, where the three Abrahamic religions and their subdivisions rubbed elbows in neighbourly relations going back centuries. Scheherazade mentions streets, buildings, and squares by name. She describes people as they go about their daily business.

And still, the novel’s city of Smyrna is as mute as Scheherazade. It doesn’t reply when she calls on it. The crowds are without faces, characteristics, and names. The Jewish community–one of the largest in the Ottoman Empire–is conspicuously absent. The four families blend in with each other, and turn into people who come and go without leaving an impression. An attempt at magical realism when toads rain from the sky only elicits a shrug from the characters. Violence in the streets as Smyrna is drawn into the armed conflict becomes a nuisance rather than the disaster it actually was.

It feels as if the novel, and Scheherazade inside it, are reaching for something. There is something the novel, the woman, and the city want to communicate, but their voices refuse to make a sound. Is it because Scheherazade herself is not present in the stories she is telling? Is it because Smyrna of the past millennia no longer exists? Renamed Izmir in 1930, the ties to history, shattered by the disasters of the war, were severed. How to speak of the trauma you have experienced if every time you bring it up first need to explain who you used to be? It renders you mute, whether you are a city or a woman.

There is beauty in this novel. There is history. There is grief and loss. Independence, strength, love, and happiness. But in the end it is difficult to say whose story is being told. Smyrna and Scheherazade both reach for their past and for a knowledge of who they are. Perhaps that is where the story lies.

Sources:
Defne Suman, The Silence of Scheherazade (Head of Zeus, 2021).
Britannica Online, Izmir (page accessed October 1, 2021).
ANU Museum of the Jewish People, The Jewish Community of Izmir (page accessed October 1, 2021).
Wikipedia, The Seven Churches of Asia (page accessed October 1, 2021).

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.