In August I reviewed this unique, amazing book, and I mentioned I wanted to write an Analysis and Discussion post for it, because I thought it had so many layers and interpretations, and while I’ve seen a few articles about it in Portuguese, I hadn’t found a comparable article in English (naturally, as the book is originally written in Portuguese). I tend to avoid spoilers in my review, and to discuss this book in depth I had to write a separate post, so that if you’re looking for a review, check out this post instead: Review: The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy.
I’m no Literature graduate, my views here presented are not scholarly but rather a result of reading the book, analysing/interpreting it and reading a few articles. My aim here is to have a layman discussion on the book in case it gets picked up by English-speaking readers who want to talk about it. Where the ideas come not from my personal conclusions but from others, I’ve named the source and linked it in Further Reading at the end of this post.
Also my quotes are free translations of the Portuguese edition and may differ from the official English translation!
This post is full of spoilers!
Summary of the plot:
The House in Smyrna starts with an unnamed character explaining she’s bedridden and sick, and reminisces about the death of her mother, with whom she “talks” throughout the book. Her grandfather leaves her a key to the house in Turkey where he grew up and which he had to leave several years ago, to move to Brazil looking for a better life. She goes to the trip not really sure what she’s after, with only a name and no idea if her family still lives in Smyrna, if they remember her grandfather and what exactly she will find. As the story goes on, she explores also painful memories of an obsessive, violent relationship with a man from her past, which ended in him raping her when she tried to end it. As she goes to Turkey, she experiences a cultural shock but slowly gets used to it and finally meets her family, who tell her the house in Smyrna no longer exists. She travels to Portugal, where her parents lived in exile for five years when Brazil became a dictatorship, and where she herself was born. There she meets a new, sweet man with whom she has an affair. At the end of the story, she metaphorically kills her ex-boyfriend, but is revealed that perhaps she never really left her bed at all.
Analysis & Interpretations:
The House in Smyrna is based on the author’s own life experiences (Nascimento Moreira, 2016) – she was born in Lisbon in 1979, moved a few months later with her family to Brazil, and her parents were Turkish Jews who were in exile in Portugal during the dictatorship years in Brazil (which is why she was born in Lisbon). These aspects are reflected in the story identically.
The fragmented structure mimics the way the main character’s mind works as she lies in bed in the beginning of the book and decides to take the trip to Turkey, jumping from memories to the present, back to memories of her past and her grandfather’s past, back to the present and so forth. It’s an interesting format, even if hard to follow in the beginning since there are no clear divisions between the different narrations except for the voice that tells it, but one gets used to it after a few pages. The passages about her grandfather’s life are told in third person, making it easy to distinguish, the sections about her obsessive, abusive romantic relationship told in second person past tense and the present voice in first person present tense.
The key her grandfather gives her seems to be the author’s interpretation of a traditional myth that Turkish Jews kept the keys of their houses when they were forced to leave suddenly. I don’t remember the source where I read this, but it’s also mentioned on the analysis linked below by de Souza Gomes Carreira, 2016.
The entire book could be understood as a made up story by the unnamed main character, bedridden and deeply sick after suffering from grief from her mother’s death and the abuse by her ex-boyfriend. We get several instances where she states this trip never happened, i.e. “This trip is a lie: I have never left my stinky bed.” (“Essa viagem é uma mentira: nunca sai da minha cama fétida…“), “I tell (invent) this story…” (“Conto (crio) essa história…“), although it’s difficult to assert what is true until the end of the book, where we return to the room where the story begins and the narrator confirms she’s never left the room at all. A clear indication that the story is only her imagination is given in fact in the first paragraphs already: “I write with my hands tied. On the un-moving concreteness of my room, which I haven’t left in a long time. I write without being able to write and: because of it, I write. Otherwise, I would not know what to do with this body, which, since its arrival in the world, has not cannot leave a place.” (“Escrevo com as mãos atadas. Na concretude imóvel do meu quarto, de onde não saio há longo tempo. Escrevo sem poder escrever e: por isso escrevo. De resto, não saberia o que fazer com este corpo que, desde a sua chegada ao mundo, não consegue sair do lugar.“) The interesting thing about this book is that it tells you upfront that the truth is none of it ever happened, not the trip, not the abusive relationship, and she’s just writing because she’s got nothing more to do, living her days with a dying body. In other instances, she contradicts herself and says she’s not actually physically sick and starts in fact thinking of the key her grandfather left for her for the house in Smyrna (nowadays called Izmir, no idea why the translator chose to call it the antique Greek version) and of going on a trip to open it. Even knowing that the first paragraph says she’s not left her room and can’t physically do it, as the text goes on the reader starts believing she actually gets up and goes on the trip, starts reliving her past, finding consolation for her grief over her mother’s death, start finding her roots and love after an abusive relationship. But which of those things ever happened are left for the reader to interpret, and choose what to believe. Maybe the reference to the illness was exaggerated, or a metaphor – her mother’s narrations often say she’s inclined to see things in such a negative light and with such pain, although they didn’t happen quite that way. It’s possible that the illness is in fact grief and depression and it feels also very physical to the main character in the beginning, who then starts to slowly improve as the story goes on. It’s possible that the abusive relationship left her depressive and her grief made it impossible to recover. It’s possible she never had that relationship at all.
According to Nascimento Moreira (2016), the narrator might in fact be dead, which is why she has no name, no identity, no detailed descriptions of herself. In fact, she refers to herself as “the body” in the first chapter. I don’t personally find this argument very convincing, and believe she is perhaps dying from her mysterious illness but not necessarily dead.
My interpretation is that either the trip is a mix of wishful thinking and a psychological journey of recovering from depression and grief instead. On the last paragraphs, her grandfather enters the room and asks if she’s ready to go for the trip (not specifying which trip) and she removes the key to the house, which is covered in dust and accepts that his history is both hers and not hers. They’re then back in the room, which smells acrid and hasn’t been cleaned or washed in a while. It’s possible that it’s an entirely different trip from the Turkey one she took. The book is about heritage, inherited history and the importance of remembrance. As the grandfather basically erased his Turkish identity when he moved to Brazil and fully adapted to the country, his granddaughter now suffers from depression and must learn and come to terms with the past of her family history and her personal history in order to move on. She starts the story wanting to deny her history and full of pain and resentment and slowly starts to learn, accept and love again.
O corpo e a mente: fragmentos que compõem a personagem-narradora de a chave de casa de Tatiana Salem Levy por Odair José Pivotto. 2017. Link.
Análise da Obra: A Chave De Casa por Anna Beatriz do Nascimento Moreira. 04/12/2016. Link.
Tatiana Salem Levy, Wikipedia page. 2020. Link.
Laços familiares e memória: uma análise de Diário da queda e A chave de casa by Shirley de Souza Gomes Carreira. 2016. Link.