I write with my hands tied. Here in the stationary solidity of my room, which I haven’t left for the longest time. I write without being able to write, and I write for this. At any rate, I wouldn’t know what to do with this body that has been unable to move ever since it came into the world. Because I was born old, in a wheelchair, with wizened legs, withered arms. I was born with the smell of damp earth, the stale gust of ancient times at my back. I am speaking of a weight that bears down on me, a weight that gives me stiff shoulders and a crooked neck, that holds my head in the same position for days on end, sometimes a month or two. A weight that isn’t entirely mine, since I was born with it, as if every time I say ‘me’ I am actually saying ‘us’. I always speak in the company of this age-old air that has accompanied me from the outset.
It paralyses me. A kind of burden. Weighty. More than that: it is brutal, cement-like, capable of arresting all movement, binding one joint to another, fusing my body’s empty spaces. Not that I am sad. It’s not a matter of being happy or not, but of a legacy I’d like to be rid of. Even if it means I have to take inordinate risks, even if it means giving up everything I’ve built thus far, everything I’ve believed to be my life. I’ve reached a point where I must change tack or be caught in Medusa’s gaze and turned to stone, cast into the sea.But words still evade me; the story isn’t here yet. As long as my muscles remain heavy and static, meaning slips away. Perhaps, little by little, when I manage to take my first steps, when I am able to free myself of this burden, I’ll be able to name things. And for this I write.
You can’t imagine how relieved I feel. How long have you been lying on this bed, without moving? How long have I been asking you to get up? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. It could be a week, a month, a year, or even a lifetime. At times I feel like a block of concrete; at others, a hazy cloud. I can’t feel my shape, my contours. I want to move from here, but I still wonder if it’s the right choice. Don’t lose heart. When you are setting out, there are no right or wrong choices, just choices. It’s too early to judge. But what if I make a mistake? What if I sink even deeper into this quagmire of imprecision and uncertainty? What guarantee do I have that I won’t trip myself up? There are no guarantees. I can only promise you one thing: take risks, and I will always be ready to give you my hand.
To write this story, I must leave here and go on a journey to places I don’t know, lands in which I have never set foot. A journey back, even though I’ve never left anywhere. I don’t know if I’ll be able to, if one day I’ll leave my own room, but the urgency exists. My body can’t bear the weight anymore, I’ve become a petrified cocoon. My face is haggard; the circles under my eyes are older than me. My cheeks sag, hearing the call of the earth. My teeth can barely chew. It is as if gravity has acted more intensely on me, tugging down twice as hard.
I have no idea what awaits me on this path I have chosen. Nor do I know if I’m doing the right thing – much less if there is any logic in the undertaking, an acceptable explanation for it. But I am looking for a purpose, a name, a body. And for this reason I’ll make the journey back, to see if I haven’t lost them somewhere – some place I have yet to know.
Without getting up, I take the little box from the nightstand. In it, amid dust, old tickets, coins, and earrings, lies the key that my grandfather gave me. Here, he said, this is the key to my old house in Turkey. I gave him a puzzled look. Now, lying here with the key in my hand, I still don’t understand. What am I supposed to do with it? It’s up to you, he said, as if it had nothing to do with him. People grow old and, afraid of death, pass on to others the things they should have done.
And now it is up to me to invent a destiny for this key, if I don’t want to pass it on myself.
You hid it as best you could, avoided the word as long as possible. You promised me you wouldn’t die of an illness. You promised me you wouldn’t die. You promised yourself, clinging to the certainty you’d created, for my benefit as well as yours. I believed it; you wouldn’t die. It meant we could live in peace: we created our world – our world without death – and in it we lived. It meant we didn’t have to worry about things: we created our own certainties, and we lived without doubt. I joined you in your fantasy, went along with your game. We avoided the word together, and on we went.
You hid it as best you could, until the day you could no longer. At first, we simply turned our eyes from your bulging midriff, your swelling throat, but with time we were forced to see what we didn’t want to. You had the belly of a pregnant woman, swollen lymph nodes on your neck, under your arms, in your groin. You tired easily. You felt queasy. You vomited blood. It was reality trying to defeat our fantasy: we couldn’t live in our world anymore. The word we didn’t want to say demanded to be pronounced, slowly and clearly. Our pact was crumbling.
We’ll make as many pacts as we need to, we’ll change worlds as many times as we have to, but one thing is certain: my hands will always be clasped in yours.”
You were sitting on the sofa looking defeated when I came over and whispered in your ear: don’t worry. If we have to change worlds, we’ll go together. It doesn’t matter where – we’ll make another pact and, if necessary, another, and then another and another and another. We’ll make as many pacts as we need to, we’ll change worlds as many times as we have to, but one thing is certain: my hands will always be clasped in yours.
I don’t do anything but examine, touch, and gaze at the key. I know its details by heart, the exact size of its curves and handle, its weight, its spent colour. I doubt a key this size can open a door. Surely they’ve changed the lock by now, if not the door itself. It’d be foolish to believe it would be the same after so long. I’m sure even my grandfather knows this, but I also imagine that he must be curious to find out if what he left behind is still there. How strange, how bizarre it must be to leave your country, your language, and your family – to go somewhere completely new and, above all, uncertain.
He told me that the ship he travelled on was colossal, his first and only time on such a vessel. It was crammed with people, all with the same hope as him: to make better lives for themselves in a different country. He was the first of his siblings to arrive, with just two suitcases and a few contacts in Brazil. He was only twenty years old when he left Turkey. Some time later, his younger brother would join him. His twin sister would die of tuberculosis. His older brother would marry and remain in Smyrna. He would only see his mother again many years later, when, widowed, she decided to move to Brazil.
How many times have I heard this same story? The pain of never seeing his father and sister again, of never setting foot again in the land that was first his. Of only bringing his mother out in time to lose her. Of having seen so much poverty on the ship and in the land he’d left behind. How many times?
So what does he want now? For me to reclaim his history, retrieve his past? Why this key, this crazy mission?
The story isn’t his alone. Life never belongs to just one person. If he gave you the key, it’s because he believes it is part of your story. You know my father: he never does anything without a reason. He could have given the key to me or to one of my siblings, but he never did. I never did go to Turkey, and now I can’t. I only heard his stories about coming to Brazil a few times. I’m not saying there’s a destiny, a mission that only you can fulfil. As you know, few people are as sceptical as me. But I don’t think we should turn down the things people offer us. How long have you been lying there in that bed? Maybe it’s a good excuse to do something, to leave the incarceration of this room and visit a country you’ve never been to. Believe in this story that your grandfather is offering: go find his house and try to open the door. Retell his story; retell mine too. Take it as an opportunity to dig yourself out of the hole you are in, even if it leads nowhere, even if you don’t find the house or the family that stayed behind. It doesn’t matter. At least the scenery will be new – although it is so ancient.
She looked like a black bundle when she came to see her son off. Veil, dress, shoes, circles under her eyes, mouth – everything so black it was blue. She was dressed as if she were going to a funeral. His father looked more relaxed. He was wearing everyday clothes: a linen shirt buttoned all the way up and tucked into his pants. His red belt didn’t match his brown shoes. The expression on his face said that this was just a day like any other, although he knew in his heart it was different. It was as if the whole house knew it, but didn’t say so: not only his parents and siblings, but also the ceiling, the walls, the unwashed dishes, the tidy living room (the orange cushions in their exact places on the sofa – one on each seat), the still-dark bedrooms. On this day everything and everyone bore an unspoken pain, an unspoken fear, an unspoken apprehension. The silence weighed heavily, begging the one who was leaving to please stay. They stood in a line in order of height: first his little brother; then his twin sister; then his older brother; then his father, the tallest of them all; and, finally, breaking the order, his mother. The door was still closed and the house was dark – there was just the light from the lamp and a subtle yellow glow coming in through the kitchen window. They must have been standing there waiting for him for a few minutes. They didn’t look at one another or speak. They stood there stiffly, staring straight ahead at the living-room wall.
When he walked into the room from his bedroom, he wasn’t surprised to see his family by the door, and knew that it was time. He had a suitcase in each hand and an overcoat on his right arm. He looked around attentively, as if he wanted to record in memory the whole composition of the house, the position of every object. He was afraid of forgetting. After all, he didn’t really want to leave, but he needed to try a new life somewhere he could flourish. There was also the army: if he didn’t leave Turkey, he’d have to serve, like his older brother. So he was bound for Brazil, where he had cousins and friends. Come, things are good here, there are lots of ways to make a decent living, they all said. Come, they need able-bodied young people like you.
Yes, wait for me; I’m coming.
I’m going to try my luck in Brazil, he told his parents. His mother looked mortified. From that moment on, she didn’t speak another word to her son, or to her husband, as if he were to blame. She barely ate, barely slept. But it didn’t stop him. He knew his mother and hadn’t expected a milder reaction. And here he was now, suitcases in hand, ready to say goodbye.
He approached his little brother and, setting down his suitcases, lifted him into the air. The words he spoke to him were sweet, as an older brother’s words should be. With his sister it was no different, except the tears on her face made him cry too. But he couldn’t break down and give in to the pain or he wouldn’t be able to continue. Tears were part of the choice. Then he hugged his older brother and it was his turn to hear some advice. His father gave him some too, but in a stricter tone of voice. He told him to be good; to resist the sins of the flesh and drink; to work hard, like a good member of the family; and, above all, to remember to write.
Extracted from The House in Smyrna, translated by Alison Entrekin.
Tatiana Salem Levy is a writer and translator. She was born in Lisbon and lives in Rio de Janeiro. In 2012 Granta named her one of the Best Young Brazilian Novelists, and her fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Granta and online at The Paris Review. Levy holds a PhD in literature and has appeared at literary festivals around the world. The House in Smyrna, her first novel, won the São Paulo Prize for Literature – Brazil’s largest award for the best debut. It has been translated into French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish, and is now published in English by Scribe. Read more.
Alison Entrekin has translated a number of works by Brazilian and Portuguese authors, including City of God by Paulo Lins, Budapest by Chico Buarque, The Eternal Son by Cristovão Tezza, Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa and The Day I Killed My Father by Mario Sabino. Originally from Australia, she now lives in Brazil.