The sweet taste of survival

Nektaria Anastasiadou’s debut novel “A Recipe for Daphne” visits the ghosts of the past, including those of September 6-7,1955, but comes out unhaunted and hopeful.

If the Balkanic pastry, whose complex recipe had been long lost, can be re resurrected, then there is perhaps still hope for our community, concludes Fanis, a 76-year-old member of the ever-shrinking Greek community in Istanbul, at the end of  the novel “A Recipe for Daphne.” 

Its taste, at least to Fanis, a survivor of the Istanbul pogroms of 1955, anchors the eater to present and “fills the hole in his heart.”

Nektaria Anastasiadou’s first novel, “ A Recipe for Daphne,” is a delightful tale that combines the tragic secrets of the past with hopes for the future. It is the story of Daphne, a young woman who comes from Miami to Istanbul in search of her roots among the Rum, the Greek Orthodox community, and the two men who vie for her affections. One is Kamas, a pastry chef who is trying desperately to resurrect a lost recipe of  Balkanic pastry, which is described as “the queen of all pastries”. The other is Fanis, a Viagra-popping womanizer whose jovial exterior hides “the hole in his heart” over the rape of his fiancee, Calypo, on September 6 when organized mobs took to streets to attach non-Moslems, particularly Greeks and Jews in Istanbul.

But the novel has two more unorthodox characters. ”The city of Istanbul is a character, rather than a setting,” says Anastasiadou, who describes herself as a Rum writer. “It touches all the characters, ‘A Recipe for Daphne’ is a book about Istanbul and its energy.” Lively bazaars, small churches, mosques and cafes, as well as the labyrinth-like streets and alleys, are masterfully described, with familiar scenes of offering tea or walking into a small shop. The writer’s outlook on the city finds expression in Fanis refers to Istanbul as “the only city there is.”

The other character is the Balkanic pastry - an unbelievable rich combination of pate a choux, chocolate, vanilla and pistache. “Each cream represents one of the Ottoman Balkan peoples,” Kosman, who finally gets the recipe with the help of a Turkish man through an Ottoman book, tells triumphantly when he produces the pastry at the final chapter. “Bulgarians, Romanians, Albanians, Greeks, Serbs, Croats, Jews and the Turks.”

Anastasiadou introduced her book to a small audience at the Yeniköy’s Panagia Greek Orthodox Church on September 6, the 55th anniversary of the pogroms, but carefully refrained from letting Turkey’s Krystallnacht dominate her narrative. “It is a story of sadness, but also of hope,” she said of her debut novel, which took much time and effort to publish. “Publishers want sad stories from the Middle East. They do not want funny ones and certainly not hopeful ones.”

The book’s playful tone, its clever use of language by borrowing idioms from one language and implanting them in another, the witty description of people and places complement, rather than distract, from the dark ghost of the pogrom. The writer approaches the dark ghost of the past delicately, particularly at the scene when Fanis confronts the man - Tayyip Aydın, the police captain and a friend of Calypso’s father- whom he blames for what happened to his fiancee, with the words, “ ask why you did not help people who treated you so well. To ask how you stood by and did nothing when your neighbor’s shops were being destroyed and their homes were invaded.” Tragically, Fanis has got the wrong man - the man he has found is Tayyip’s black sheep of a brother, a “Leftie” who was wrongfully blamed for taking part in the pogroms. “My mother and I hid our Rum neighbors during the pogrom,” says the police officer’s brother.  “We thought Tayyip would also help our neighbors… but he changed after wearing the captain’s uniform… became arrogant.”

The novel takes up the woes of Turkey’s Rum community - the political turbulence, the aging population, the departure of the young people, difficulties in maintaining their language and culture alive, and the way they are perceived. The world refers to us as “Istanbul Greek,” laments Faris, which implies that our ancestors hailed from Greece and not from Istanbul, though many of Istanbul's Greek-speaking Rums were descendants of the native population that lived there since 330 AD. 

“A Recipe for Daphne” is a book of secrets, confrontations and complex identities. It is also of dynamism, mobility and hope - with witty references to mother-son relations, Sex and the City, tattoos and tango. “It reflects the energy of the city,” says Anastasiadou - the City, the only one there is.

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