Book: The Spice Box Letters
Author: Eve Makis
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
When Eve Makis was writing The Spice Box Letters, her literary agent left her because the agent believed, “No one cares about the Armenian genocide.” It’s rather ironic the scant storytelling of the Armenian genocide in popular literature given that it is the second-most studied extermination of an entire race after the Holocaust, and it resulted in the systemic elimination of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government in Turkey. Published in 2015, the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, The Spice Box Letters traces the stories of two Armenian siblings violently separated during their deportation from Eastern Turkey in 1915.
After her death, Katerina’s grandmother Mariam leaves behind not only a church full of friends, memories of succulent lamb shoulder smoked with paprika, and a half-torn photo of her mother Gaderine (Katerina’s namesake) but also a yellowing diary written in Armenian and a spice box full of sealed letters. Katerina’s mother Gaby insists that Katerina use her journalistic skills to uncover stories from her mother’s past by getting the diary translated as neither of them can read this script that looks like a cross between Greek and Arabic. Wary of what she’ll find, Katerina prolongs the assignment, until one month later, on a vacation to Cyprus, she meets an Armenian man, Ara. What starts off as a request for translation, becomes the shared reliving of a past both turbulent, and in parts, romantic.
Nicosia in Cyprus is a white-washed town with hills and an Armenian club where Gabriel Arakelian frequents to meet his friends or when his wife Marta has banished him from home once again for being nasty to their granddaughter’s Greek fiancé Harry. Gabriel drinks a lot of whiskey, loves Marta to bits, and presents an image of a man who has endured his horrific past with storytelling and courage, but is childishly annoyed about losing his Armenian legacy due to his granddaughter’s choice of husband. He firmly believes he will find out what happened to his mother after they were separated when “the boys” Gabriel, Mariam, and Tomavos were attacked and left to die during the deportation.
Alternating between the storylines of Mariam’s diary entries, Katerina’s vacation-turned-assignment, and Gabriel’s pursuit of the truth, this novel works up enough momentum to keep a reader engaged. Though the retelling of the genocide could have been, rather should have been more unsettling, it is not so. While factually accurate, the deportation is just a base of this tale of separation rather than the heart of it. Not that Eve Makis set out to construct a pulsating recounting of history itself, compared to other books set around a similar setting, The Bastard of Istanbul and The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey, the historical cornerstone of this novel doesn’t make your skin crawl as much as it should. Nonetheless, the events of the deportation broadly paint a grim picture of the times – frequent demises of co-travelers and the subsequent numbing to death, scarcity of food and water, road side attacks by the Kurdish robbers, losing of family members either due to death or separation, and the long walk from Eastern Turkey into the refugee camps in Aleppo, Syria. (Is the irony apparent here, or do I need to call it out?)
“I knew of Katma – we all did. It was a notorious transit camp for refugees, a narrow strip of desert surrounded by barren hills, the gateway to Aleppo, a stopping off point or final resting place. I had heard first-hand reports about the conditions at Katma, about the stench of human refuse and rotting flesh, the sea of emaciated people begging for food, the flies as thick as storm clouds, shallow graves filled with inky corpses.”
In this homogenous mix of a story, while there is hostility, there are also stories and then, there is love. As a child, Gabriel’s choice of “escaping this place” is to tell Mariam tales of magic, fantasy, and love. In turn, Mariam tells her lover the very same stories after losing Gabriel, to keep his memory alive. In a subtle way, one is reminded of how we’re all made up of stories in the end. The novel also has its moments of romantic love; whether it be of the love between Mariam and Gaby’s father, Gabriel and Marta, Anahit and Harry, and even, Katerina and Ara. In soft waves of words, they step into each other’s lives making themselves at home, kiss with tenderness, remarkably share their unremarkable days, and look at each other with undying affection.
“An anchoring sense of humour has helped me cope. ‘My life hasn’t all been a calamity. It was peppered with gifts and blessings. The most precious gift is sitting right here, beside me.’ My wife’s eyes mist over.”
And then, there is the inevitable integration and appreciation of food into the lives of the characters, as is a feature of most Mediterranean/Middle Eastern stories. It’s hard to find a story set in the center of the Earth that does not love its food and makes magic with it. As in the case of The Bastard of Istanbul where Elif Safak weaves in the stark similarities of the Turks and the Armenians based on their food, in this novel too, Katerina finds that the food at Ara’s house is exactly what her grandmother used to make back in England. There is a generous dash of culinary delights be it memories of Mariam’s cooking, fresh mint tea, halva from their childhoods, syrupy paklava, fragrant stews, rolls of bread in honey, strong raki, aubergine dips, olives, and freshly baked bread.
“Do you remember crunching open almonds and the flavour of sweet melons?”
And finally, there is the kindness of strangers that quietly creeps − in the novel as well as in real life − that is the unsung heroine of the fabric of the human condition. The unnamed people who helped the characters on their long walk into uncertainty: an Arab Bedouin who takes in a pregnant woman and provides shelter, a doctor at the refugee orphanage who is executed for refusing to poison the children, a Turkish woman who rescues a small boy and wants to raise him at the cost of being caught, a woman who adopts an orphaned girl as she is now childless. It is noteworthy that this is not just a recall tale, but a reality in the present-day world, where thousands of people are being displaced from their homes, and though there is desolation, there are the silent, helping hands of kind strangers. It may serve as a bumper sticker saying that though the world is full of despair, it is also full of benevolence.
By writing this story, Eve Makis has done what novelists set out to do – create fiction such that it resonates with and supplements real life. She interviewed Armenians settled in Cyprus where she lives and although not an Armenian herself, she has done her digging of the past and reproducing it fairly well. Setting stories around historical events of note offers us not only perspective but also caution, and reminds us the crooked ways of humans and an opportunity to fortify ourselves with greater emotional and rational intelligence. The past is not a foreign country; it has far reaching consequences almost often spanning across the map of the world. History affects our social structure, policy making, and even racial diversity thus trickling down to the lives of the common folk. Though we may not be immortal, the things we make and do often live longer and become a part of a consciousness that transcends generations. Take for example the Cyrus Charter inscribed in the Persia of 6th century BCE that is a model for the American declaration of independence. Or the constant border conflicts that have brought the world to a tune of 200 countries from 100 countries in the 1945. Geopolitics causes waves across the continents and is constantly morphing as an unsentimental discipline. It may seem like “something happening to someone else”, but it functions as a ripple of reminder across the world of what it is to be human in its all-encompassing gory and glory.
Come to think of it, the literary agent was right. Why write about it when no one cares? But then again, why will anyone care if no one writes about it? It is for this reason, one must care about the Armenian genocide and all other displacement of lives and cultures under the hood of power and the fear of the loss of this very power. It is for this reason stories must be written about events that matter and they must be passed down. Even if means writing them down in an ancient script and sealing them in a spice box you once received as a gift.