Flames on the Water – Tears in the Sea is a powerful historic novel about one of the worst tragedies of the 20th Century, the destruction of a beautiful city, the massacre of hundreds of thousands of its citizens and the displacement of millions of people.
For centuries Smyrna had been a prosperous trading city on the shores of the Mediterranean, with many cultures living side by side, but division of the territorial spoils of World War I had terrible consequences.
The battles leading up to the destruction of Smyrna, the great fire, the evacuation and the aftermath described in this book are closely based on the actual events, although the specific military and social actions of some of the characters are in part fictionalized.
This is a vivid description of the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922, including its tragic effects on the lives of the Girdis and Caristinos families, and the heroic life and actions of Asa Jennings, an American YMCA worker and Methodist pastor.
About the author, Con Aroney:
Associate Professor Con Aroney, is an interventional cardiologist and cardiac research scientist in Brisbane, Australia. He has authored over two hundred scientific papers and book chapters and is currently a principal investigator in 4 major clinical trials. He worked as a clinical and research fellow at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA, before returning to Brisbane where he was awarded a Doctorate in Medicine from UQ.
He has been the principal author of Australian guidelines for the management of heart attack and unstable angina for the past 15 years and has been national chairman of the Clinical Issues of the Heart Foundation. He has a special interest in screening persons for risk of heart attack and dietary factors in heart disease and has been a Queensland and Australian pioneer of several keyhole operations for heart disease, including radial artery access angioplasty, ASD closure, mitral vavuloplasty, septal ablation and implantation of the aortic valve from the femoral artery.
In 2005, he was named Queensland Whistleblower of the Year for revelations regarding poor access to public hospitals, giving evidence to the Public Hospitals Royal commission which led to greater transparency regarding public hospital waiting lists. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2007 for service to cardiology and to the Heart Foundation. In 2013, he published the historical novel – Flames on the Water, Tears in the Sea – based on the lives of his Greek grandparents in Asia Minor, and on the hero Asa Jennings.
A Review of the book by one of Australia’s most respected Greek literary critics Konstandina Dounis
Flames on the Water, Tears in the Sea – a very poetic title, by the way, by virtue of its apt interplay of tautology and antithesis – follows the fortunes of the Girdis family of Alatsata, the Caristinos family of Chesme, and Asa Jennings of New York.
The Girdis and Caristinos families perceived themselves as Ionian Greeks, having lived on the coast of Asia Minor since ancient times. They were part of a Greek community, hundreds of thousands of people strong, who either lived in Smyrna, or in one of the surrounding townships. They lived in relative harmony within a truly cosmopolitan milieu – Turks, Armenians, Jews, Americans, British – and had forged a life of prosperity and gentility.
Asa Jennings had been a devout Methodist pastor, as Con Aroney tells us, ‘a kind man and friend to all, the poor and the wealthy, with prejudice to none’. Severe illness had left this slight man with a deformity of the spine and precarious physical health, the result of which was subsequent employment with the YMCA and travel, with his wife and children, to lands where there was turmoil and where help was needed to restore civil purpose, particularly in the young.
The fates of the these three families intertwine in the midst of the Smyrna Holocaust – for that is what it was, both literally and metaphorically – each member engaging in acts of heroism that were extraordinary, reflecting the extent to which the human spirit can endure the unendurable in the name of love and justice.
[Most Greeks today know] something about the Smyrna Holocaust or the Asia Minor Catastrophe. We have heard it from our parents, Greek school teachers, community newspapers. I will never forget George Dalaras and Haris Alexiou, bringing out that magnificent record entitled Mikra Asia, in the late seventies, devoted to it with music that was both enchanting and heartbreaking.
The travesty, particularly for the descendants of those who were killed, maimed or displaced, is that most non-Greeks are not familiar with this tragedy. And those who are, often have a singularly skewed perception of it, fueled by the inevitable ambivalences as to its claim to actual historical reality. As Ian Matthews states in his recent review in the Order of Australia Magazine (Autumn, 2014):
Con Aroney has woven a novel around the almost forgotten facts of the rescue of about 300,000 Greek women, children and aged refugees from Smyrna, now Izmir, Turkey, after an onslaught by Turkish forces in 1922. Drawing on his family’s history, Professor Aroney tells the grim story of yet another of the 20th century’s massacres – but one that could have been infinitely worse but for the work of an American YMCA worker, Asa Jennings… It is a sobering commentary on civilized society that in our own lifetime we have become so inured to the litany of horrors of the Holocaust, the slaughter in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the massacre at My Lai that the 1922 Catastrophe at Smyrna has slipped our notice. Con Aroney’s novel reminds us never to forget.
On this basis alone, this novel is of inestimable importance and deserves our praise and our efforts to see its dissemination to as wide a readership as possible, not just in Australia but – given our increasing global conception of things – to every corner of the earth.
However, there is more to it than that. As a literary critic, my fascination is with the words on the page and how these words are arranged and in what structures they are ensconced. Con Aroney is a skilled craftsman, a wordsmith of high order.
The narrative is a fusion of numerous genres: oral history testimony, personal memoir, historical fiction or fictionalized historical discourse, meticulous historical research and painstaking attention to detail of landscape.
The structure is episodic – a revelatory jigsaw adding texture upon texture to the resultant mosaic – reflecting precision of time and place, the shortness of the episodes almost cinematic in their effect. Indeed, this narrative would translate readily to the big screen and I harbor a secret hope that this may be in the cards for it at some point in the future.
Tension builds up throughout. This book is very hard to put down; you always want to know more. Apart from the structure which enhances the anticipation, our curiosity is also piqued by the portrayal of the protagonists: their personalities, their loves, their concerns, their tribulations, the vibrancy of the portrayal enhanced by the dialogues that bring them to life.
If Professor Aroney’s mother, Chryssa, and grandmother, the beautiful and courageous Eugenia Girdis, were the inspiration behind the authenticity inherent in the storytelling, then – judging by the touching ‘acknowledgements page’ that appears at the end of the book – it appears that his father, Dr Nicholas Aroney, was the catalyst for the quotes from ancient Greek texts that bind one episode to the next. These quotes are vital to the overall atmosphere generated, providing commentary on the minutiae of the unfolding events and, at the same time, serving as a sort of universal parameter within which to view the cyclical nature of tragedy and triumph.
For example, one of the earlier episodes entitled, Chesme, Asia Minor – July 1919, is headed by the famous quote by Aristotle:
Excellence is not an act but a habit. Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts. Brave by doing brave acts.
The ensuing scene depicted is bitter-sweet in tone. John Caristinos lost his close friend, Nicholas Girdis, through a series of events instigated by the Great Persecution of 1914. He subsequently becomes a father figure, a sort of mentor, to Nicholas’ young son, Christos, imparting his wisdom and knowledge regarding notions of happiness, arête, agape and the importance of one’s heritage.
In a later episode entitled, Smyrna – September 12, 1922, the quote is by Hesiod:
Often an entire city has suffered because of an evil man.
The horrific brutality meted out to the Armenian and Greek populations is recounted in unsparing detail. The author is measured in his depictions throughout. There are no propaganda treatises or melodramatic theatrics. If John Caristinos, for example, is dear friends with Nicholas Girdis, the depth of his friendship with the Turk, Ahmet, is just as intense. However, Con Aroney does not shy away from ‘calling a spade a spade’ and his portrayal of the new Turkish regime, headed by the looming menace of Kemal Ataturk, is scathing. How could it possibly be otherwise given the atrocities that were carried out?
As he wryly points out at the end of this episode:
The final result of the Greco-Turkish had major consequences. It brought down two governments and established two republics. The sultan fled to Malta, the Ottoman Empire was overthrown by the Young Turks and the republic of modern Turkey was born with Kemal as its first president. His new Turkish state was based on a secular constitution, somewhat curious after the policy of forced expulsions, exchanges and murders which had resulted in an almost completely Moslem population. The Greek monarchy was overthrown, and Greece also became a republic. Hundreds of thousands of Christian Ionian Greeks of eastern Asia Minor and Armenians of western and northern Anatolia were marched to their deaths in the Syrian desert. Atrocities were committed by both sides, but the events between 1914 and 1922 cost the lives of over three million civilians, mainly Armenian and Greek, and violently translocated almost as many others from Asia Minor and Greece. The lives of everyone who lived there would be changed forever.
Within this nightmare, there were many acts of extraordinary courage by the protagonists whose journey we have followed throughout. The awe-inspiring efforts of Asa Jennings, a force of nature if ever there was one, who managed – through alternate channels of diplomacy and bribery – to save over 300,000 Greek refugees from the quay of Smyrna alone.
The image of Elisaveth who carried her pregnant sister in her arms for over five kilometers to reach a greater level of safety. The young Christos, killed while trying to protect his sisters from being raped. And, of course, the scene where John Caristinos – who had refused to leave his homeland where all his forefathers lay buried – is brutally tortured and decapitated, his last movement and thought informed by love of family, love of home:
He once more looked back at his garden. The purple hyacinth will be blooming soon and he will cut some for his wife…
The scenes depicting the wedding of Eugenia Girdis and Con Caristinos in Brisbane, Australia, herald new, peaceful, happy beginnings, although their language, their traditions, their cuisine, all collectively hark back to an other time, and an other place.
I would like to bring this review to a close by focusing on the most moving presence that laces its luminosity throughout the narrative: the city of Smyrna herself, this exquisite multicultural, multilingual city whose total destruction has now rendered her as that most imaginary of homelands.
How fortunate that Professor Con Aroney, through the successive pages of his book, has given her color, texture and sound – brought her, at least momentarily, back to life with her Opera House, shops, cafes, tavernas, schools, grand merchants’ houses, the sea vistas, the luscious landscape. Smyrna, the Jewel of Asia, the Crown of Ionia, the Pearl of the Levant. Lest we forget!