Isles of the Blind

Robert Rosen­berg

  • Review
By – August 11, 2016

A Jew­ish Turk­ish bil­lion­aire is killed in a boat­ing acci­dent in the Sea of Mar­mara off the coast of Istan­bul. His last phone call is reject­ed by his estranged broth­er. Five years lat­er, the broth­er arrives at the scene of the acci­dent and slow­ly finds him­self in a posi­tion to deter­mine what real­ly hap­pened and why. The mys­tery and the his­to­ry begin.

The gov­ern­ment and the media report the death as a trag­ic acci­dent. Avram Benezra knows his broth­er Yusuf was a world-class swim­mer and head of a high­ly suc­cess­ful telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions firm, but knows lit­tle else of his brother’s recent life, con­nec­tions, beliefs, and expec­ta­tions, or of their fam­i­ly his­to­ry. What was Yusuf doing, and what does Turk­ish his­to­ry have to do with Yusuf Elmas’s death?

Robert Rosen­berg sub­tly unfolds and weaves the plot in this most thought­ful and beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten nov­el, ensnar­ing read­ers in chap­ter after pre­cious chap­ter. Avram, as the nar­ra­tor, cycles in and out of the past and present, as the two broth­ers grow up to lead com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent lives in post-World War II Istan­bul, where their family’s roots date back to the Inqui­si­tion as part of the vibrant Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty with­in the Mus­lim coun­try and their strug­gling, work­ing-class par­ents’ lives are cen­tered around Yusuf’s cys­tic fibro­sis — treat­ments, med­ica­tions, ther­a­peu­tic reg­i­mens, and med­ical bills.

Under finan­cial stress, their father, Emil, buys a small cot­tage on near­by Princes’ Island for the fam­i­ly to spend healthy idyl­lic sum­mers. The boys swim, fish, and are sur­round­ed by a lov­ing extend­ed fam­i­ly. But after the cot­tage is grudg­ing­ly sold and their mother’s untime­ly death, the fam­i­ly begins to break apart. Bit­ter­ness, anger, resent­ment, and secrets fueled by jeal­ousy, sus­pi­cions, and ill­ness seal the estrange­ment. Avram mar­ries Nao­mi, moves to Ankara, and leads a qui­et life as a com­pa­ny archi­tect with twin daugh­ters upon whom he dotes.

Mean­while Yusuf beats all the odds: despite a peri­od of drop­ping out and wan­der­ing, his intel­li­gence, cre­ativ­i­ty, and steely deter­mi­na­tion yield him great busi­ness suc­cess. Yusuf becomes a world-famous celebri­ty and acquires the rep­u­ta­tion of a wom­an­iz­er, polit­i­cal hob­nob­ber, and jet-set­ting mag­nate. As a final insult to his fam­i­ly, he changes his name and denies his traditions.

Yusuf, who always vowed he would come back to his beloved sum­mer island, buys a man­sion retreat there. Anoth­er side to him emerges as he spends time inter­act­ing with the rhythms and days of the island peo­ple and his hired help.

Five years after Yusuf’s death, Avram is sur­prised to dis­cov­er that Yusuf left the man­sion to the father he hat­ed and nev­er con­tact­ed since leav­ing. With his mar­riage in jeop­ardy and no prospects for employ­ment, Avram decides to repair the untend­ed prop­er­ty for his father with the help of Yusuf’s for­mer employ­ees. The cook, Flo­ra Demopoulous — whose daugh­ter Yasemin died in the acci­dent with Yusuf — is wary, bel­liger­ent, and caus­tic. She slow­ly learns to trust Avram and helps him to piece togeth­er the mys­tery of Yusuf’s life. Avram method­i­cal­ly nar­rates the details of who his broth­er became, what he believed in, and why he under­took the caus­es he did: speak­ing out pub­licly about the Armen­ian Geno­cide in a coun­try where that sub­ject had long been ignored and unspo­ken, and con­sumed by the sto­ries and mem­o­ry of the ships bombed or left adrift near Istan­bul car­ry­ing Jews hop­ing to escape Nazi Europe. The wrecks of the Sal­vador and Stru­ma lured Yusuf to dan­ger­ous encoun­ters with many who want the evi­dence left at the bot­tom of the sea rather than exposed to the world.

The man­ner of how a close fra­ter­nal rela­tion­ship comes apart is played out against world events and Turk­ish cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal life, woven through­out a sto­ry that pro­vides a com­plex per­spec­tive on its geo­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal set­ting, in which per­son­al con­vic­tions are at the heart of the strug­gles of the fine­ly drawn, strong, and engag­ing char­ac­ters. Isles of the Blind is a pow­er­ful, most sat­is­fy­ing, and entic­ing nov­el, and a high­ly rec­om­mend­ed read.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions