When I first read “On the Quai at Smyrna,” I did not know what to think. My professor had told me that the story reflected a historical event and that Hemingway wrote it to a young audience from the perspective of a British officer, but other than that, the random little anecdote seemed cryptic. Hemingway gave almost none of the characters names – nondescript pronouns left me wondering who “they” were and who “he” was. Thankfully, in the 21st century we enjoy the convenience of the Internet and Google searches – and Hemingway had not left me without clues. So I began with the basics: What is a “quai,” and where is “Smyrna”? Otherwise known as a quay, a quai is a type of dock for mooring boats that runs parallel to a channel of water. And Smyrna is the old name for the modern city of Izmir on the western border of Turkey. Put the two together and you end up with the “Great Fire of Smyrna” in 1922 that prompted the Greeks and Armenians in the city to flee to the quai and seek refuge on Greek ships (with the Allies overseeing the evacuation). As I researched more, I realized that a much deeper story lay behind Hemingway’s narrative, a story that involved the Armenian Genocide. Hence Hemingway’s mention of “Kemal” – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the ambitious Turkish leader whose troops torched Smyrna and decimated the Armenians. Suddenly, it all began to make more sense: the refugees screaming and waiting on the quai, waiting to escape from the devastation in the city; the British officer and his crew loading them on board; the Turks cooperating … at first.
Although the narrator of “On the Quai” spoke in somewhat subdued language, he described a graphic scene: dead children, dying women, broken animals, screaming people, lying Turks. I particularly enjoyed how the narrator used irony to subtly, politely put down the Turkish officer and describe the ugly scene. “Great friends we were,” he said about the officer – and in my mind I thought, “Sure you were.” The last two sentences of the story caught my attention. Heavy with irony and sparse on punctuation, they clinched the paper with a nonchalant punch to the stomach. The whole narrative read like a casual conversation between the officer and close friends, as though they were remembering a common experience. The fact that the first sentence picked up in the middle of an established scene added to this ‘shared memory’ feel.
Overall a strangely pleasant read. But I do not suppose that I would have enjoyed it half as much if I had not researched the backstory. A proven point and a lesson learned: Always do the research – understanding equals appreciation. Nothing puts literature higher on my enjoyment list than being able to connect with the text intelligently.