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The Lighthouse Family

‘Your childhood is your homeland’, said Epictetus, and so did the poet and Nobel laureate Louise Glück ‘We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory’. 

Children who grow up with stories ‘of  homelands  their parents  can no longer call their own’, are often caught in a bind : they  are  born  and raised in a new land (of promise) , but the soil and the trees  and the   memory  of their forbears stays on : it  is   inter -generational. Memory remains intact ~ even when scripts, currencies, anthems, flags and popular narratives are abruptly cast aside for new ones . Thus, the Lighthouse Family is the story of a forced migration from  one country   to another because ‘lines have been drawn’, and borders have birthed new nations . In this case , as in many others , the point of division  was adherence to the crescent or the cross , and neighbours who had lived together for centuries  suddenly found themselves  as ‘mortal enemies’.   But while these divisions may have been  politically expedient for helmsmen  who seek control over lives and destinies of people  and  materials and munitions for their respective countries, it augurs pain, suffering and misery for those who are affected.

Population exchanges - whether in the islands  across the Aegean or in the alluvial  plains of Punjab or  the riverine fluvial   in Bengal or the  hill tracts on the Myanmar border - are  infinitely more poignant , and certainly not as methodical and mechanical  as  the maps, charts and papers on which premiers and plenipotentiaries affix their signatures .

The Lighthouse Family  by the forever itinerant Firat Sunel , currently Türkiye’s ambassador to India with accreditation to Nepal and Bhutan  is a spellbinding narrative of a   novel   set in Sarpıncık  - the terminal village on the westernmost tip of his country  ,  on the hillside overlooking the  Aegean.     Here lives  the   grizzled patriarch, his ageing paternal aunt  Hanim Hala with her prayer beads and chants ,  his wife, and their three children—the weak-hearted İlyas, their only daughter, Feriha, and the youngest, Little K  our   narrator. The year is 1942 ,  and though their country is neutral , the Greek islands are facing the brunt of the Second World War, and many are willing to risk their lives to seek refuge  in the land of their erstwhile adversaries  - near the lighthouse- where our story is set. In his conversations , Firat talks of the lighthouse as a metaphor . For the  lighthouse is much more than    just a venue or a building. It symbolises loneliness and desolation while at the same time being a symbol of hope  , direction ,  light  and refuge to a shipwrecked soul !


This was indeed an idyllic year for Little K and his family – the bright young boy has received top grades in his school, and with the support of his  siblings and his mother, is keen to go to the town of Izmir to continue his education , though  he also feels ‘the weight of the world as he struggles between  his desire to go the city school, or help look after the lighthouse as only he can’. Around this time , the  ‘family frame’  is captured by a photographer  who is visiting their remote hamlet. But while they never receive  copy of this , Little K has an epiphanic moment  when this  picture is  accidentally  discovered  in a flea market in a German coastal town in the 1980s. And he tells his partner…  about the only  image  where my whole family are present . “That little kid in the front, the one in shorts giving a military salute: that’s me… Blissfully unaware that a military junta would later change my life… Dad’s hands on my shoulders, like he wanted to restrain me… Mum to his right, silent and docile as ever… the grim-faced woman sitting in a chair bang in the middle is our Hanım Hala, madam paternal aunt… My big brother İlyas to her right. Two years my senior, but we look like we’re the same age. He seemed to be growing younger as I grew up; I always thought we’d end up the same age one day. Which is not what happened… Standing next to me in a patched pair of trousers… is my big sister Feriha… The wildest of us all, obstinate and a daredevil bold enough to stand up to our dad. She lived in a world I could never enter, probably because I was a child… I never told her; but she was pretty, despite the shabby clothes and the short hair she had cut herself…”


The character development of every member of  the family  is striking :  each grappling with their own internal conflicts and external pressures. From K's internal struggle between duty and personal aspirations, to his brother Ilyas's physical frailty but ardent wish to be part of the rite of passage of circumcision ,  and sister Feriha's unwavering support, each character is intricately woven into the fabric of the narrative, adding depth and emotional resonance to the story. Their aunt Hanim Hala chanted around the mastic tree planted as a sapling: the soul of the home they left behind. When Ilyas dies  in an avoidable accident,   Fer­iha’s affections are taken by his namesake , a Greek  war refugee named Elias  who is washed up in the cave below the lighthouse. We are not sure if this love was platonic , but Little K does not want his affection to be shared , and in a child’s ignorance the narrator commits an act of betrayal that will haunt him for the rest of his life. The father pushes Elias out of her life, as well as his own  , by forcing him out into the rough sea on a rickety boat to a certain death in the stormy sea , and then he too, suffers from pangs of guilt for the reminder of his life.


Meanwhile , Little K completes his education, but reads more than is ‘stipulated by the state’ and writes  what he wants to, rather than what is expected. While in Istanbul trying to find a publisher , he   saves a  Greek barber, and his twelve-year-old daughter , Delphina during an  anti-Greek riot in the city in 1955.

Per chance , he meets her, years later in a German library where he has taken refuge as a  Heimatlos (homeless exile), then they stumble across the  family picture , which has already been   described in detail in an earlier para.

Together they retrace their steps to the lighthouse  and Little K relives those memories , those times and also the repertoire of unopened letters he had sent to his siter Feriha, who is more central to the lighthouse family that the narrator as well.

This is indeed a book where fiction and nonfiction walk hand in hand , and the translator Feyza Howell has also done a superb job in  bringing the times and spaces of the characters and their geographies  alive. Valley of Words will be hosting a session on The Lighthouse Family later this year, and this reviewer is also looking forward to the next set of translations from the pen of Firat Sunel. Till then , happy reading.



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