New Books, by Claire Messud

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[Reviews]

New Books

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Battle at Langada and Komboti, by Panagiotis Zographos. Courtesy AUTH Archive Collections

Battle at Langada and Komboti, by Panagiotis Zographos. Courtesy AUTH Archive Collections

This year marks the bicentennial of the Greek Revolution, which freed the territory from the Ottoman Empire and led to the establishment of Greece as a modern independent nation. In honor of the occasion, Mark Mazower, an eminent scholar of the region and author of, among other important books, Salonica, City of Ghosts and Inside Hitler’s Greece, has produced a rich, illuminating, and imposing history of that paradigm-shifting conflict.

In The Greek Revolution (Penguin Press, $35), Mazower makes a case for the contemporary relevance of this often-overlooked war: its twisted course was shaped not only by the decline of the Ottoman Empire, but also by the rising influence of international public opinion, and by the novel practice of foreign aid. From the United States, the revolution elicited the first example of “a policy of organized international relief, one that would be closely identified with America’s projection of its power and values abroad for the next two centuries.”

Ruling Greece from the mid-fifteenth century onward, the Ottomans quelled various rebellions, including an earlier uprising in the 1770s, the failure of which lived in the memories of the revolutionaries of 1821. But Mazower makes clear from his opening line that the road to independence “started with the defeat of Napoleon.” At the ensuing peace congress in Vienna, Tsar Alexander I of Russia brought with him a Greek-born diplomat named Ioannis Capodistrias, who would become Greece’s first governor in 1827. While this trajectory may sound straightforward, it was quite the opposite, as Capodistrias remained for a long time divorced from the revolutionaries and the complex, brutal battles that unfolded over six long years. The revolution’s prime movers were the Filiki Etaireia, a secret organization founded in 1814 by three exiled Greeks that grew into “an entirely new kind of political association, one premised on radical ideas of self-sacrifice, individual agency and equality in the case of national rebirth.”

Ioannis Capodistrias © Album/Alamy

Ioannis Capodistrias © Album/Alamy

Like characters in a Homeric epic, the players in Greece’s war emerge, in Mazower’s telling, in an apparently orderly fashion. An expert storyteller, Mazower unravels a Gordian knot of local, regional, and international factionalisms. While the sultan in Constantinople remained the ultimate power among the Muslims, he and the Greeks both had to contend with regional leaders such as the Albanian Ali Pasha, named the Mahometan Bonaparte by Lord Byron. The Ottomans fielded military leaders such as the “brilliant and experienced general” Khurshid Pasha, and Kütahi Pasha, who was responsible for the vicious conquest of Mesolonghi. Meanwhile, Mehmed Ali, the sultan’s governor in Egypt, was often at odds with Ottoman leadership, as he aimed “to win independence from the Sultan in order to create his own family dynasty.”

Mazower follows the revolution’s heroes, including the warriors Theodoros Kolokotronis and Georgios Karaiskakis; the priest Papaflessas, who died fighting Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Mehmed Ali; and, like a beacon in a storm, the judicious and diplomatic Alexandros Mavrokordatos, who would ultimately serve four times as prime minister, dying in 1865. The Greek factions descended repeatedly into civil war; individual leaders switched sides for personal gain; soldiers engaged in merciless violence and plunder, while their maritime counterparts often turned to piracy. Murder, rape, pillage, and enslavement were common.

The book deftly weaves in the broader international context: Throughout Europe, the philhellenes advocated for Greek independence, and many found their way to the country and even to the battlefield, just as their descendants would in the Spanish Civil War over a century later. Byron, of course, was among the most famous of these—he died of fever in Mesolonghi in 1824, an envoy of the London Greek Committee that organized a substantial loan to the revolutionaries. In France, too, leading figures such as Chateaubriand and the painter Delacroix lobbied for European intervention. “Philhellenism was becoming a cultural force unifying very diverse swathes of European society,” Mazower writes, even “helping to create something we might term a European liberal conscience.”

Ultimately, it was European intervention at the Battle of Navarino—the navies of Britain, France, and Russia—that brought an abrupt end to the conflict in 1827, installing Capodistrias as the new nation’s leader and eventually placing a Bavarian royal, Otto von Wittelsbach, on the Greek throne. This is by no means the end of the story, of course. Mazower notes with some acerbity that

no king of Greece died quietly in office before 1947 . . . George II, who managed it, is said to have remarked that “the most important tool for a king of Greece is a suitcase.”

The abiding conflict between Turks and Greeks, Muslims and Christians, is at the heart of Elif Shafak’s new novel about Cyprus, The Island of Missing Trees (Bloomsbury, $27). Shafak, one of Turkey’s most prominent living novelists and long established in the United Kingdom, writes in English in a lyrical, magical realist mode that somewhat leavens her story’s darkness. One of the book’s recurring narrators is a fig tree. “Across history we have been a refuge to a great many,” it says, continuing:

A sanctuary not only for mortal humans, but also for gods and goddesses. There is a reason why Gaia, the mother goddess of earth, turned her son into a fig tree to save him from Jupiter’s thunderbolts.

This fig tree, rooted in London, has grown from a cutting brought to the United Kingdom by a Greek Cypriot named Kostas, taken from a dying tree in an abandoned tavern, The Happy Fig, where a young Kostas had met clandestinely with his Turkish Cypriot beloved, Defne. The tree—resilient, wise, given to commentary—serves as a bridge between characters, times, and places.

“Fig Tree,” by William Josephs Radford © The artist

“Fig Tree,” by William Josephs Radford © The artist

The novel’s framing narrative unfolds in London in the recent past, focusing on a sixteen-year-old girl named Ada Kazantzakis. Ada lives with her father, the aforementioned Kostas, as both grieve the recent death of her troubled mother, Defne. In time, Defne’s sister Meryem comes to stay with them, the first extended family member Ada has ever met. Slowly, Ada approaches the complicated history that drove her parents into exile and alienated them from their families.

The novel’s historical chapters unfold largely in the summer of 1974, when Cyprus, following a coup ordered by the governing military junta in Athens, was invaded by the Turks on two occasions. Anticipating their families’ disapproval on religious grounds, Kostas and Defne—already as secretive as Romeo and Juliet—are torn asunder, and the restaurant in which they had found safe haven is destroyed. More than twenty-five years later, Kostas returns to the island’s Turkish side and finds Defne working with the Committee on Missing Persons. The two resume their relationship.

The couple, then, understandably choose to raise their late-born child far from the conflict that so scarred them—for them as for the kings of Greece, a suitcase proves an important tool. But for Ada, her parents’ silence about their past has created an unarticulated darkness that prompts her, early in the novel, to have a public emotional outburst. Her aunt’s arrival occasions important conversations in the family, but for the reader, the bigger secrets told by the fig tree—unknown to Meryem or Kostas—constitute the heart of the book.

Shafak has structured the novel through a variety of ordering principles: the alternation between a third-person narrator and the first-person fig tree; the interspersal of historical Cyprus chapters into the London narrative; the separation of the book into sections that correspond to the tree’s form (Roots, Trunk, Branches, etc.); and, significantly, the further incorporation of stories of nonhuman creatures—bats, butterflies, birds, mice. In Shafak’s cosmos, these creatures, like the trees, have the power to educate and liberate us from our destructive tendencies. At one point, Ada recalls a story her mother Defne told her about the sighting by British soldiers, during World War II, of what initially appeared to be smoke:

A few minutes later, rivers of butterflies, many thousands of them, flew over the battalion. And the soldiers, some so young they were merely boys, clapped and cheered . . . those who were lucky enough felt the touch of a pair of gossamer wings on their skin, like a farewell kiss from the lovers they had left behind.

In this way, The Island of Missing Trees is not simply a commentary on the bitter legacy of war, which Shafak suggests will shape future generations no matter how hard we try to prevent it from doing so; it is also a commentary on the folly of our adversarial relationship with nature and our refusal to learn from the flora and fauna with which we share the planet.

Shafak’s English prose, though sometimes glorious, often relies on overly familiar phrases. But the scope of her thematic ambition is impressive, and she is a compelling storyteller. She writes as well about teenage irascibility as about profound human suffering, and, like the wise fig tree, understands the interconnectedness of all things great and small.

“Kaleidoscope II,” by Gwen Wilkinson © The artist

“Kaleidoscope II,” by Gwen Wilkinson © The artist

Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and the author of the best-selling Against Empathy, considers human suffering from a rather different angle in his new book The Sweet Spot (Ecco, $27.99). His approach to writing is resolutely unwriterly and unacademic—that’s to say, he writes as if speaking, which brings a welcome immediacy to his explorations. (While reading, I pictured the book in the hands of a young business executive heading home on a commuter train. Nowadays, I suspect few business executives read books on trains, and indeed few may even be on trains at all, but you get the idea.) And these explorations, richly substantiated, are punctuated by allusions not only to Daniel Kahneman and Robert Nozick, but also to The Matrix and Pokémon Go. Avengers: Endgame rubs shoulders with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and the effect, simultaneously authoritative and chummy, is engaging.

“Nobody,” Bloom contends, “is immune to the lure of suffering”—though he is swift to make a distinction between the suffering of wartime and that of localized, willed hardships, such as endurance athletics or mentally strenuous activity. The aim of his inquiry is to find the correlation between suffering and happiness, to identify what his book defines as “the sweet spot.” Among various types, he identifies the pleasures of imaginary suffering—fictions including films and video games—and of controlled suffering such as in BDSM. But in the realm of daily life, he distinguishes early on between “happiness” and “meaning,” acknowledging that “happy people tend to be healthy and financially well-off, and to have lives with a good deal of pleasure.” By contrast, those who call their lives meaningful seem to eschew these comforts in favor of setting ambitious goals, which in turn brings anxiety and worry. “Meaning in life” seems to coincide with concern for others; “happiness” is more selfish.

A Train, by Yuri Yuan. Courtesy the artist and Alexander Berggruen, New York City

A Train, by Yuri Yuan. Courtesy the artist and Alexander Berggruen, New York City

This question of “meaning” is one to which the book repeatedly returns, as sustained satisfaction (rather than successive moments of happiness) seems to depend upon it. Bloom cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow as “an experience of intense and focused concentration, where you are entirely in the moment.” This would be the goal we strive toward—“challenged to just the right extent, threading the needle between too easy (which leads to boredom) and too difficult (which causes stress and anxiety).” But of course the shape differs for each individual.

What might such goals have in common? Bloom turns to Emily Esfahani Smith, the author of The Power of Meaning, who, in summarizing the work of the historian and philosopher Will Durant, suggests four recurring themes: a sense of human belonging, a belief that humans act with purpose, a capacity for storytelling, and a capacity for transcendence. Bloom notes cheerfully that “suffering is not one of the criteria,” but makes the point that whether having a child, going to war, or climbing a mountain, “one might not wish for or welcome suffering. But it always comes along for the ride.”

The purposeful role of suffering—sacrifice, for example—is central to many religions, and Bloom addresses the fact that we tend to “want our goodness to be unsullied by pleasure.” This, he writes, is “why savvy charities sponsor walkathons and marathons, not group massages and beach parties.”

Agency is unsurprisingly important to the narrative of purposeful suffering: it helps to feel that you have some control over the pain you experience. Meanwhile, Bloom observes that trying to be happy (seeking control over one’s happiness) can in fact get in the way of being happy. Rather, there is a balance to be struck:

It’s not merely that there exist some people who are both happy and have lives with meaning. It’s that there is a correlation: happy people are more likely to say that their lives are meaningful, and people who say that their lives are meaningful are more likely to say that they’re happy.

If it were straightforward, of course, more people would lead what they considered meaningful and happy lives. Utilitarian analyses ultimately fail to account for our quixotic human natures. Bloom, at the end, cites the protagonist of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, who rejects that new world’s absolute prioritizing of pleasure: “But I don’t want comfort,” the character John insists, “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” As Bloom concludes, “There is no better summary of human nature.”


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