Mary Lee Settle
New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1986
ISBN # 0-684-18662-4
Comments by Bob Corbett
Mary Lee Settle tells a gripping tale with a parade of exotic characters – Turkish power brokers, local village notables, a spate of American and European ex-pats and tourists. Few are really likeable, but most are quite interesting, generally more for their vices and foibles than their virtues.
There is a plot of sorts which gives the novel its forward motion. The town of Ceramos
is a rather lost and run down spot. However, despite the area being protected by Turkish law from development, powerful local and later international interests want the area opened up to major tourism and change is in the making. And money is in the making. The combination spells trouble for Ceramos.
However, the essence of the novel is in three areas:
- The individual characters themselves. The major characters are legion – among the ex-pats are an aging American divorcee who’s lived there for three years on her meager alimony income, a decadent elder British ex-professor homosexual, a Dutch Jew, survivor of WWII who runs a popular tavern, a German archeologist from the University of Michigan, a CIA agent posing as an AID worker, a rich and beautiful young American girl and a rather pathetic American married couple made up of a older roaming sailor and his nymphomaniac wife.
Local color is added with both the chief of police of Ceramos and the captain of the gendarmes who controls the country side, the rich and politically powerful, ruthless, manipulating land holder and his son the mayor, a fascinating scuba diver, friend of the ex-pats, a fugitive university student and his mute little brother.
- There is a large frame of just what happens to sleepy and no-so-unpleasant Ceramos when major tourist development turns the world of tradition and values upside down, nearly destroying all the above mentioned characters in the process, but the whole Ceramos as well.
- Author Mary Lee Settle has marvelous insight into the confusions and misunderstandings which arise between native and visitors in areas of language and culture. In this novel, of course, these are played out between Americans and Europeans in their dealings with Turks. However, in my travels, and especially in my many trips to Haiti, I have seen and experienced these misunderstandings many times, but never quite reflected fully on the level of it all until Settle’s treatment ins this work.
At center stage of the linguistic confusions are levels of language learning. Many visitors do learn to sound rather facile in the local language for simple everyday matters of greetings, everyday business of getting food, banks visits, conversations about the weather or even some current events. Yet their real knowledge of the local language may be quite thin. This appearance of facility leads the native speaker to assume greater fluency, and thus they take conversations far beyond the visitor’s grasp. On the receiving end the listener, all of a sudden out of his or her depth, uses nods, facial expressions and such to indicate understanding when there is none.
There is an hilarious section in Blood Tie when archeologist Horst is telling a visiting Turkish judge about his plans for a dig. Horst is speaking English. When Horst is pointing and talking about the most basic of his plans the judge gets it. But soon this encourages Horst to wax on and the judge is utterly lost, picking up just a couple of words here and there, but words he knows in contexts that have no relation to Horst’s speech.
Settle hammers this theme. Her second constant focus is on cultural misunderstandings. A typical passage concerns Ceramian women’s acts as they intend them, and Englishman Basil’s understanding of them:
“Through the mass, here and there, the villagers tried to edge away from contact with the skin of foreign girls, the gavur, the undressed like whores in their narrow breast coverings, the fine hair shining on their obscene rounded arms. It was their arm hair that it was bad luck to touch. They pushed too near to the hot crowd, and when they did, the women held their shawls as a charm against this evil eye, in case they should brush up against the hair.
Her third insight was just hilarious:
“Basil who had managed to get ahead of them so that he seemed to be leading his little world, noticed the kindness of the village women as they gave the foreign girls room. It was the second thing he like about the Ceramians, their politeness – a whole society, except for drivers, knitted together by good manners left from the rule of the Ottomans."
“If any person was someone of note, but a bit standoffish or politically different, then that person was openly suspected of being a CIA agent, since he or she would make a good source. On the other hand, if someone was not a person of note, but a bit standoffish or politically different, then that person was openly suspected of being a CIA agent since he or she had good cover in their unknowness."
At times I did feel a bit overwhelmed with the numbers of significant characters and the level of their development and the resulting pace. The “moving force” plot of the coming hotel got seemingly lost in the characters and larger cultural issues.
However, I did enjoy the book a great deal and learned a lot in the process.
Mary Lee Settle was winner of the National Book Award for fiction in 1978 for this novel.