Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: A Book Review

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
May 14, 2003

As I was reading this beautifully written book, rummaging through various outrageously artistic nitty-gritty details of life’s normality and abnormality, I couldn’t but chuckle reminiscing Senator Rick Santorum’s huff and puff only a few weeks ago. What would Santorum do if he had had read this novel? What could be his reaction? Perhaps another “sacred” scripture filled “talks” could bamboozle us. Perhaps not.

Jeffrey Eugenides has guts for sure. He is courageous to the bone. Not many contemporary writers could write a story on a subject that is considered serious “no! no!” in our modern world. Any mention of “abnormal” folks with “dysfunctional” or “weird” procreation or no-procreation “tools” is considered a subject for the underground honk-bonk liberals. Jeffrey Eugenides is bold in his ventures. He does not hesitate to develop his character, Calliope, who is a hermaphrodite, with every bit of humane compassion he could muster.

I still remember back in my old days, there were severe laughter and corny stare filled hush-hush rebuke whenever the slightest talks on these “unfortunate” folks came into discussion. One of the popular curses used by many was using their name.

In Indian subcontinent they are known as “Hijra”.

They are condemned from their birth. Their pain and suffering are not to be discussed. Open and shut case! No more discussion is allowed in all-purified heterosexual world.

Aha! We are called the modern world!

Like countless other hypocrisy filled shouting showy “morality” and “ethics”, the case for these condemned human beings are kept in shadow.

Jeffrey Eugenides wishes to shatter that “peaceful” serenity imbedded in modern porous morality.

When a child is born with abnormal “tools”, does he or she have any choice? But this inhumane world does not think so. We have venomous Falwell, murderous Laden, polygamous bearded Mullahs and Hari-Nam spewing orange scarf wearing temple men, who are in the forefront in their vicious campaign against all forms of “abnormality”, forgetting quite nicely about their own abnormal “pious” falsity.

Now that well-deserved condemnation is done and as I’m feeling much lighter after clearing my tonsil-filled throat, let’s look at Middlesex, this year’s Pulitzer winner.

Middlesex is Jeffrey Eugenides’ only second published book. For many it was a huge surprise that he could win literary world’s one of the respectable prize so early in his literary career. But he did it. Breaking away from all the old suffocated tradition, he has won the big prize this year. Jeffrey Eugenides is not completely unknown in the literary world. His first book Virgin Suicide that was published in 1993, got quite a good acclaim from various corners. Even the Publishers Weekly commented on his first novel, “Eugenides’s voice is so fresh and compelling, his powers of observation so startling and acute, that most will be mesmerized……Tantalizing….imaginative and talented.”

And he is talented, imaginative and all the other favorable adjectives that I can’t remember right now, can be bestowed to this writer maestro. From the very first sentence of Middlesex he has demonstrated his ability of embracing a reader with his hypnotic artistry, and getting away from that strong embrace is not quite ordinary matter.

The very first sentence reads the following: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Thus the unforgettable story begins, the battle of sexes, gender identity, the girlish and boyish agony through childhood and adolescence were painted in colorful detail.

Calliope Helen Stephanides is his/her name. This is not the story of Calliope’s life only. This is the story of Desdemona, Lefty, Milton, Priest Mike, Sourmelina, Zizmo, Dr. Philobosian and many other memorable characters as well. A hefty five hundred-page book but when you read the last sentence, you might just wish for more.

Atrocity and brutality, wars and devastation are not limited only to our decades and generation. From the earliest memory and recorded history that man able to extract show the similar pattern of exploitation, murderous zeal, greed, treachery and corpse churning wars and battles scattered all over historical meander.

In 1919, “The Greek Army, encouraged by the Allied Nations, had invaded western Turkey”, “reclaiming the ancient Greek territory in Asia Minor.” Desdemona and Lefty, brother and sister lived in Bithynios controlled by the Greek till then. “A Greek flag flew over the former Ottoman palace. The Turks and their leader, “Mustafa Kemal, had retreated to Angora in the east. For the first time in their lives the Greeks of Asia Minor were out from under Turkish rule. No longer were the giaours (“infidel dogs”) forbidden to wear bright clothing or ride horses or use saddles. Never again, as in the last centuries, would Ottoman officials arrive in the village every year, carting off the strongest boys to serve in the Janissaries. Now, when the village men took silk to market in Bursa, they were free Greeks, in a free Greek city.”

But their euphoria did not last long.

The Turks invaded the Greek occupied land. Lefty and Desdemona were in panic. “We’ll go to Smyrna,” said Lefty. “Everyone says Smyrna’s the safest way”.

They were all wrong.

The occupying Greek General Hajienestis who was the Commander in Chief of the Greek forces in Asia Minor in that year, was informed by his second in command that “The Turkish cavalry has been sighted one hundred miles east of Smyrna. The refugee population is now 180,000. That’s an increase of 30,000 people since yesterday.” Desdemona and Lefty were not aware of this secret information. They have already embarked their journey to Smyrna believing that it was the safest place they could go.

There were rumors floating in the air. Allied warships were anchored near Smyrna along with other merchant ships. “---yesterday an Armenian newspaper had claimed that the Allies, eager to make amends for their support of the Greek invasion, were planning to hand the city over to the victorious Turks – the citizens looked out at the French destroyers and British battleships, still on hand to protect European commercial interests in Smyrna, and their fears were calmed.” They felt that the European powers would never let the Turks enter the city. “…if they did, the presence of the warships in the harbor would restrain the Turks from looting. Even during the massacres of 1915 the Armenians of Smyrna had been safe.”

But it was a mistake. In the end these allied battleships, warships and destroyers did not come to rescue for the poor and desperate.

Dr. Nishan Philobosian was from Smyrna. He believed firmly that no harm would come to the Smyrna residents, the Ally would never let it happen. Like a life insurance he possessed a letter that proclaimed, “This letter is to certify that Nishan Philobosian, M.D., did, on April 3, 1919, treat Mustafa Kemal Pasha for diverticulitis. Dr. Philobosian is respectfully recommended by Kemal Pasha to the esteem, confidence, and protection of all persons to whom he may present this letter.” (Page 47)

The beach of Smyrna was flooded with hundreds of thousands of refugees, huddled together with their family, hoping to getaway in a boat to a secured place while the Turks’ booming advancement could be heard in faraway places. These refugees had so much faith in Greek Armies and on Ally’s friendship. But what was happening in Ally’s mighty ships?

In one of those ships, Major Arthur Maxwell of His Majesty’s Marines were looking at these helpless refugees through his binocular. Here are some conversation excerpts:

“Jolly crowded, what?”

“Looks like Victoria Station on Christmas Eve, sir.”

“Look at those poor wretches. Left to fend for themselves. When words gets out about the Greek commissioner’s leaving, it’s going to be pandemonium.”

“Will we be evacuating refugees, sir?”

“Our orders are to protect British property and citizens.”

“But, surely, sir, if the Turks arrive and there’s a massacre …”

“There’s nothing we can do about it, Phillips. I’ve spent years in the Near East. The one lesson I’ve learned is that there is nothing you can do with these people. Nothing at all! The Turks are the best of the lot. The Armenian I liken to the Jew. Deficient moral and intellectual character. As for the Greeks, well, look at them. They’ve burned down the whole country and now they swarm in here crying for help. Nice cigar, what?”

“Awfully good, sir.”

“Smyrna tobacco. Finest in the world. Brings a tear to my eyes, Phillips, the thought of all that tobacco lying in those warehouses out there.”

“Perhaps we could send a detail to save the tobacco, sir.”

“Do I detect a note of sarcasm, Phillips?”

“Faintly, sir, faintly.”

“Good Lord, Phillips, I’m not heartless. I wish we could help these people. But we can’t. It’s not our war.”

“Are you certain of that, sir?”

“What do you mean?”

“We might have supported the Greek forces. Seeing as we sent them in.”

“They were dying to be sent in! Venizelos and his bunch. I don’t think you fathom the complexity of the situation. We have interests here in Turkey. We must proceed with the utmost care. We cannot let ourselves get caught up in these Byzantine struggles.”

“I see, sir. More cognac, sir?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“It’s a beautiful city, though, isn’t it?”

“Quite. You are aware of what Stravo said of Smyrna, are you not? He called Smyrna the finest city in Asia. That was back in the time of Agustus. It’s lasted that long. Take a good look, Phillips. Take a good long look.”

Yep! Take a good long look. The greedy interests over thousands of innocent civilians huddled in the cold of Smyrna beach. Their lives were expendable to the Ally and the Greek and Turk Armies. Poor Desdemona and Lefty were among these hapless refugees, holding each other’s hand, hoping for a better life in a secured place. The same dreams could be seen other equally hapless refugees, among their babies, children, elders, they were all hopeful. Their armies could never abandon them. Their European brethren could never leave them at the mercy of Turks. Could they?

Dr. Nishan Philobosian thought the same, and that’s the reason he wanted to stay in the city despite the oncoming Turkish march. He felt secured since he had possessed that “sacred” letter from Turkish leader. His wife and children were all sure that nothing could happen to them.

But some awful thing did happen. Dr. Philobosian’s family jumped when they heard the knock on the door. They thought it must be their father returning from the sick neighbor’s house. “Go. Let him in! Quick!” Toukhie says.

“Karekin vaults down the stairs two at a time. At the door he stops, collects himself, and quietly unbolts the door. At first, when he pulls it open, he sees nothing. Then there’s a soft hiss, followed by a ripping noise. The noise sounds as though it has nothing to do with him until suddenly a shirt button pops off and clatters against the door. Karekin looks down as all at once his mouth fills with a warm fluid. He feels himself being lifted off his feet, the sensation bringing back to him childhood memories of being whisked into the air by his father, and he says, “Dad, my button,” before he is lifted high enough to make out the steel bayonet puncturing his sternum. The fire’s reflection leads along the gun barrel, over the sight and hammer, to the soldier’s ecstatic face.”

Dr. Philobosian was not at home when Turkish soldiers attacked his family. When he returned, “It didn’t occur to Dr. Philobosian that the twisted body he stepped over in the street belonged to his younger son. He noticed only that his front door was open. In the foyer, he stopped to listen. There was only silence. Slowly, still holding his doctor’s bag, he climbed the stairs. All the lamps were on now. The living room was bright. Toukhie was sitting on the sofa, waiting for him. Her head had fallen backward as though in hilarity, the angle opening the wound so that a section of windpipe gleamed. Stepan sat slumped at the dining table, his right hand, which held the letter of protection, nailed down with a steak knife. Dr. Philobosian took a step and slipped, then noticed a trail of blood leading down the hallway. He followed the trail into the master bedroom, where he found his two daughters. They were both naked, lying on their backs. Three of their four breasts had been cut off. Rose’s hand reached out toward her sister as though to adjust the silver ribbon across her forehead.”

When I read these lines, I was speechless. Eugenides has given life to war’s viciousness and brutality. The full gore of war is in display. Like Iraqi limbless Ali, and thousands of other nameless innocent civilians bombed by the “coalition” invasion or butchered by Saddam and his murderous cohorts, the past generation, ages had witnessed the similar atrocity. There is no barrier of religions, any race or nationality. In the maddening hypnotic wars, every brutality is foreseeable, every devastation is predictable.

Eugenides chronicles the deeply saddening episode in burning Smyrna: “On the deck of the Jean Bart, the three new French citizens looked back at the burning city, ablaze from end to end. The fire would continue for the next three days, the flames visible for fifty miles. At sea, sailors would mistake the rising smoke for a gigantic mountain range. In the country they were heading for, America, the burning of Smyrna made the front pages for a day or two, before being bumped off by the Hall-Mills murder case (the body of Hall, a Protestant minister, had been found with that of Miss Mills, an attractive choir member) and the opening of the World Series. Admiral Mark Bristol of the U.S. Navy, concerned about damage to American-Turkish relations, cabled a press release in which he stated that “it is impossible to estimate the number of deaths due to killings, fire, and execution, but the total probably does not exceed 2000.” The American consul, George Horton, had a larger estimate. Of the 400,000 Ottoman Christians in Smyrna before the fire, 190,000 were unaccounted for by October 1. Horton halved that number and estimated the dead at 100,000.” Doesn’t this remind us the recent war casualty estimate that is shrouded in secrecy?

Middlesex is not about the war only. There are so many dynamic aspects of it that the writer has masterfully developed, it reads like a magic box, in each chapter there are surprises, there are flowing stories enwrapped with one another. Calliope was raised as a girl but in the end she discovered her true identity. This is her story. This is her father Milton’s story who was a die-hard republican, he had arguments with his democrat loving Greek expatriates in support of Richard Nixon. This story is also about a strange character named Zizmo, who was a bootlegger in the time of American alcohol prohibition, who was a firm supporter of Turks. Zizmo was so versatile that he even became a Muslim leader who had inspired the Detroit Black populace in converting to Nation of Islam. There were romance, there were agonies of dreams of bearing the mutant babies and genetic disorders. It was a nightmare for Rick Santorum and conservatives like him.

Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex is a literary triumph to the fullest extent.

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Mahbubul Karim (Sohel) is a freelance writer. His email address is: sohelkarim@yahoo.com.