Guest Post: TJ Gorton on the inspiration for his novel Only the Dead

Quartet is an indie publisher that always publishes interesting books – indeed they describe themselves as having ‘a fine tradition of pursuing an alternative to the mainstream’. So when I was invited to join the blog tour for their latest novel to be published, I said yes but knowing my review pile was teetering opted to host a guest post. Author TJ Gorton (whose own website is here) studied Arabic in Beirut and Oxford, and he has lived in the Middle East and Arabia and written or edited several other books.

This is his first novel. Only the Dead is the story of Vartan, an old Armenian from Aleppo. As he reads Persian poetry in war-torn Beirut, he recalls his youth and coming of age in the equally war-torn Levant of 1915-18, seeing the parallels with his situation now.

Subtitled ‘A Levantine Tragedy’, Only The Dead portrays a culture, time and place that I know little about, and having just started reading this book, I’m enjoying my armchair journey so far. The story is in part based on a real man, but let the author tell you about that, as I hand over to Ted…

Only the Dead by TJ (Ted) Gorton

I had published six books before this one, from translations of Classical Arabic Poetry to anthologies of travel writing about Middle Eastern countries and cities, most recently a biography of a sixteenth-century Druze prince who spent five years in exile at the Renaissance court of the Medici in Florence (Renaissance Emir: a Druze Warlord at the Court of the Medici, also published by Quartet). Nonfiction came naturally to me, after a 1,000-page doctoral thesis for Oxford University (a study of an 11th-century Arab poet, guaranteed to put the unlucky reader to sleep if not in a coma). Fiction was new to me, but in one way I was incredibly lucky, so much so that I sometimes had the impression this book was writing itself. Let me explain.

Historical fiction usually follows one of two main paths: projecting words and feelings onto famous historical characters in order to flesh out episodes in their lives, to bring a chapter of history to life (think Wolf Hall or I, Claudius); or wholly invented stories of unknown personages at a chosen more or less remote place and time (most 19th-century English or French novels). My desire to write this book, which gradually turned into an obsession, grew from an idea, and a seed. The idea is that the events in the Levant during the First World War were more critical than generally thought in determining the future lives of millions of people in the region and elsewhere. Specifically, the almost instant annihilation of the Ottoman Empire, “Sick Man of Europe” but one that at the end still ruled a vast area with an ethnically diverse population of twenty million, left behind a power vacuum, a powder keg of tensions that continue to influence regional events even today. My characters have imagined interactions with historical people, so this is a sort of hybrid genre.

The “seed” was a personal one, planted by a very old man I had the privilege of knowing. This is not his story, for he never told it completely, only episodes from his early and very late years, but his stories (told during the dark nights of the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970’s) gave me the idea, the peg on which I would hang my story. And a passionate urge to tell it. He was not in any sense Vartan, whose adventures and emotions are truly fictional, but there are some aspects of his youth and old age that the man I called “Amo” would have dimly recognised from his own life. I hope he would forgive the liberties I have taken—I think his sense of humour was great enough for that. He more than anyone would know that this is not “his” story.

There is of course a potentially controversial aspect: the deportation and wholesale massacre of much of the Armenian population of Cilicia, the southeastern corner of Anatolia. Most serious students of those terrible events, including some from Turkey, agree that they constituted the first genocide of the 20th century. That such horrors could be glossed over or denied entirely seemed to me to be adding moral atrocity to murder. Readers of this book will have no doubt which side of the “debate” I agree with, and if some disagree, I will welcome polite and reasoned argument.

Thank you Ted.

T. J. Gorton, Only the Dead (Quartet, June 2019), paperback original, 288 pages.

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