– Jonathan Taylor
In many ways, the story of my novel Entertaining Strangers is based on, or at least inspired by, various non-fictional images. It all started about 16 years ago, when an Armenian friend of mine was talking to my wife, who’s Greek Cypriot, about a terrible disaster of which I’d never heard before: the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922.
In September 1922, the Turkish Nationalist army under Kemal Atatürk marched into the city of Smyrna (modern Izmir); subsequently, most of the city was burnt to the ground, thousands of people massacred, deported, mutilated and raped, and hundreds of thousands of refugees gathered on the quayside screaming for help from the ships in the harbour.
The image that particularly haunted me from this story was the attitude of the foreign ships in the harbour. The vessels moored there included British, American, French and Italian warships and cruisers; but during the initial stages of the disaster, these ships and their crews stood by, refusing to help the Greeks and Armenians on shore, many of them moving further back, away from the blaze and screams. There are even reports that sailors from the British ships (working under orders) poured boiling water onto the refugees who swam up to them, begging for help; and that, on some of the ships, music was played loudly on gramophone records, and by brass bands, in order to drown out the noise – the noise of shrieks, gunshots, explosions, fire.
This image fascinated me. On the one hand, it’s an image of absolute callousness in the face of terrible human tragedy; on the other hand, it’s a very human way to behave: on a much smaller level, all too often we switch off the T.V. if the news becomes too grim; or we ignore the hungry and homeless on the street, walking past them with headphones in, playing music to drown out their pleas for help. In the face of immense suffering, too much empathy and sympathy can seem psychologically – and, no doubt to those on the ships in Smyrna, physically – dangerous.
So I wanted to explore in the book questions of empathy and sympathy – and particularly questions about helping those ‘in need.’ The novel opens with the main character actually helping a homeless person in 1997; but it eventually flashes back to the image of those ships standing by in 1922, playing music to drown out the tragedy unfolding 250 yards away. In that sense, the foreground of the novel (the sections set in 1997) is more optimistic, and might be loosely labelled ‘comedy,’ whilst the backdrop (the climactic section set in 1922) is ‘tragedy.’ Of course, it’s not as simple as all that – life never is – and I’ve always believed that tragedy and comedy always co-exist, even in the most extreme circumstances; hence why my novel is called a ‘tragi-comedy.’
I believe strongly this is what literature is best at: highlighting the profound complexities and ambiguities of life – unlike, say, politics, or tabloid journalism. In literature as in life, comedy and tragedy, good and evil, kindness and callousness can co-exist, often in the same situation, the same person, the same symbol.
This is certainly the case in the central symbol of Entertaining Strangers – ants. For the main character, Edwin, ants represent the antithesis of human callousness, the antithesis, that is, of people playing music on a ship to drown out nearby screams. For Edwin, ant communities represent a kind of organic utopia, where all the citizens help one another, striving for a common good. At the same time, though, his ideas of ‘mutual aid’ in nature are haunted by their opposite – the neurotic terror that, even in his beloved ant farm, creatures might behave in violent, sadistic, callous and cruel ways. Throughout the novel, his ant farm becomes a microcosm, then, of the ambiguities and complexities of the wider world.
As I say, I don’t think it’s for a novel to solve these ambiguities, to straighten out these complexities. A novel doesn’t have to find solutions – and that’s the strength of the form. If the twentieth century, and events like the Great Fire of Smyrna and its aftermath prove anything, it’s that ‘solutions’ (to use a term which is itself haunted by twentieth-century history) to problems are often dangerous, even horrendous. The novel, to paraphrase Keats on poetry, ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’