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Paradise Lost: Smyrna, 1922

3.7 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465011193
ISBN-10: 0465011195
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Smyrna was a prosperous, cosmopolitan port on Turkey's Aegean coast where Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Jews and other nationalities lived in harmony. In his searingly vivid account of Smyrna's destruction by the Turks in 1922, acclaimed popular historian Milton (Nathaniel's Nutmeg) begins with a fairy tale–like description of the city focused lopsidedly on the wealthy European dynasties known as Levantines. But Milton renders an astute account of the clash of Greek and Turkish nationalisms and the unhelpful meddling of Western powers, particularly Britain, which supported a Greek incursion into Turkey. When the defending Turkish troops under Mustafa Kemal (aka Ataturk) took Smyrna in September 1922, a horrific killing spree of Greeks and Armenians began, and hundreds of thousands of refugees were trapped on the quayside between the sea and a city willfully torched by the Turks as a score of foreign vessels looked on. Milton draws on eyewitness accounts to render these events in all their horror, and ends with an almost incredible rescue led by an unlikely hero. Milton powerfully renders this tragic tale of an army that came to liberate Smyrna and instead massacred its citizens and burned their prize to the ground in a vengeful frenzy. (Aug.)
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From The New Yorker

In September, 1922, after the Turkish forces of Mustafa Kemal defeated a Greek army that had recklessly occupied the Anatolian city of Smyrna, members of Smyrna’s Greek, Armenian, and expatriate communities were killed, raped, and robbed. Soon, a half million people were trapped on the port’s narrow wharves, the city in flames behind them; "The streets were stacked with dead," a British officer wrote. Milton weaves the Armenian genocide, the birth of modern Turkey, and the tragic inanities of Versailles into his story, but his focus is the destruction of the multi-ethnic, religiously diverse cosmopolis of Smyrna (now the Turkish city of Izmir). He has a tendency to idolize the Levantines, dynasties of European "merchant princes" who remained oblivious as Greeks and Turks committed atrocities closer and closer to their enclave. Milton’s more compelling hero is Asa Jennings, a five-foot-tall Y.M.C.A. administrator who, by bluffing, begging, and desperately improvising, single-handedly saved tens of thousands of lives.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (July 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465011195
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465011193
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #518,262 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By B. J. O'Brien on July 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The last third of this book is about the terrible days of September 1922; the larger part before that is an account of events during the preceding decade. As such, the book has no direct competitors. There is considerable material available for the dedicated researcher into the Smyrna tragedy, but only a few other books in English - Horton's book of 1926, for example, and one by Housepian Dobkin of 1971; and these are primarily about the September days. It was an excellent idea to design a book in the structure Milton has chosen and to write it in a style to appeal to a broad readership.

But the next most important thing about the book's design is more debatable. Smyrna was a city with an extraordinary ethnic mix. One element was tiny in number but great in economic and social power: a group of rich families called the Levantines. Rather disgracefully the publisher's blurb doesn't mention this, but a fundamental feature of the book is that, as far as he possibly can, the author tells his story from the viewpoint of the Levantines. This is a new approach: Horton and Housepian Dobkin say little about the Levantines. (Even so, Horton gives a much clearer definition than Milton of the term `Levantine'. Milton sometimes prefers fluency to clarity of explanation. But that is an aside.)

The book certainly makes a contribution to Smyrna studies, by drawing on hitherto unknown Levantine source material, but it is obviously intended for the general reader. If the author concentrates on the viewpoint of one tiny minority, can he give the reader, who may well start with little or no knowledge of the subject, an intelligently balanced understanding of the whole complex tragedy? That is the issue that Milton and his publishers had to consider when they conceived this book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a rare book I wanted to keep reading until the end. The author's style is both fluid and interesting.

Although the tragedy at Smyrna in 1922 is the denouement, the book takes a much longer, and broader, view of Turkey immediately prior to being on the losing side in World War 1, the war itself (including the Armenian genocide), the dismemberment of the last of the Ottoman Empire by the victors, the charismatic premier of Greece (Venizelos) and his "Great Idea" to invade weakened Turkey and bring the western parts, populated by many Greek-speaking people, back into a larger Greece, as if it were the Ancient Greek Ionian settlements. Greece has the support of the Western powers in that venture, but its forces are eventually defeated by a brilliant, and equally charismatic, Turkish general Mustafa Kemal, who later became the Turkish Republic's first premier as Kemal Ataturk. He was responsible for modernising Turkey and moving it rapidly into the twentieth century. The victorious Turkish soldiers reach Smyrna (now Izmir) on the western coast and force the evacuation of the Greek forces. Unfortunately, Kemal cannot maintain order among his victorious troops for long and the tragedy of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Greeks ensues (there were more Greeks living in Smyrna than in Athens itself and Aristotle Onasis was one of the fortunate survivors as a young boy), as well as the burning and looting of most of the non-Turkish parts of Smyrna. The victorious powers of World War 1 have warships just off the coast but refuse to intervene to save the people for fear of creating an international incident by being seen to favor Greece in a limited dispute.
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Format: Hardcover
B. J. O'Brien's review is quite helpful and accurate in its critique. I am appreciative of Milton's work on this subject; it adds to the many accounts of Smyrna's tragedy. It also reads well. But I too think that the publisher and author have a historical obligation to clarify the perspective of the book in that the Smyrna we are told about is through the eyes and lives of the Levantines. Despite the horrific accounts told in the later half of the book of the average citizen of Smyrna, the narrative has us peering down from Bournabat as a Levantine, sipping tea, witnessing the tragedy mostly as an inconvenience of lifestyle. Because of this narrative, the millions of Armenians, Greeks and Turks seem distant to Smyrna, and if you are not verse in the other experiences of what happened, as a reader you may simply find yourself exclaiming, "Oh dear! Who will serve the tea?". I left this book with not only the horrific imagery of those September days (and years leading up to them), but also feeling that I was supposed to mourn the romantic lifestyles of the Levantines and feel it was an equal tragedy that there would be no more spring balls, maids, and gardens with wisteria. Of course it is valuable to have Smyrna's account from any group or individual, but without clarifying this to the reader it perpetuates a hegemonic pattern of viewing history and the experiences of minority groups as peripheral and invisible.
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Format: Hardcover
4.5 stars, rounded up.

In September, 1922, a world came to an end; the last vestiges of (usually) peaceful coexistence between Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Turkish Muslims and the Levantine merchants (descendants of European families living in Asia Minor) in the bustling cosmopolitan enclave of Smyrna ended in a bloodbath, the legacy of which echoes today in the political tension between Turkey and its European neighbors. Milton, a British writer who specializes in shining light on overlooked corners of history (Nathaniel's Nutmeg recounts the history of the spice trade and the fate of what would become known as the Dutch East Indies and later Indonesia), has combined narratives from those who lived through the terrible days of the sack and destruction of the city and wholesale murder and deportation of perhaps 100,000 or its Greek and Armenian citizens to tell a chilling tale of the demise of both a city and a dream.

The book opens with the dream: that of a wealthy city, with "the climate of southern California, the architecture of the Cote d'Azur and the allure of nowhere else on earth", Milton writes. On the quayside that later saw such horrors, fig merchants once haggled to buy crops from the Turkish interior; gypsy bands played, and the Greek, Turkish, Armenian and European communities mingled effortlessly with the members of the ultra-rich Levantine families who lived in their opulent villas a few miles outside Smyrna itself. Thanks in part to the incredible manipulations of the Ottoman Turkish governor of the city, this unique community managed to ride out the years of the First World War relatively unscathed, even as the Allies and the Turks were fighting each other only hours away by horse in the bloody conflict of Gallipoli.
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