Summary of In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway, Scribner 1925 edition, renewed 1958
“On The Quai at Smyrna,” pages 11-12
The narrator of this short story offers, almost in dramatic monologue fashion, memories of how he and other members of a military ship (presumably British or American) helped evacuate Greek citizens when, after the Treaty of Lausanne, Smyrna was declared Turkish territory. The man, who refers to himself as a “senior officer,” remembers how the evacuees “screamed” on the dock every night at midnight. The boat crew would turn the searchlights on them to quiet them. He also recalls a Turkish officer who complained that one of the crew insulted him; the senior officer placated him by telling him that the crew member was sent aboard to be punished, but he really was not punished. The Turkish officer then “felt topping about it. Great friends we were.”
The senior officer says that the worst experience was dealing with the women with dead babies, who refused to give up the corpses of their children. He also remembers seeing an old woman die before his eyes and go stiff immediately with rigor mortis. “I told a medical chap about it and he told me it was impossible,” he says.
The senior officer asks whomever he is talking to if he remembers when they were warned not to come into the harbor because “the Old Turk” might turn the batteries on them. Instead, the crew was going to sail into the harbor and shell the city. However, “Kemal came down and sacked the Turkish commander. For exceeding his authority or some such thing.”
The senior officer then asks if the person he is talking to remembers the “nice things” floating in the harbor. Or the women in the hold who chose dark places to have their babies, and how the crew “just covered them up with something and let them go to it.” He says the Greeks were such “nice chaps” that they broke their mules’ forelegs and tossed them into the harbor to drown when they discovered that they could not take them on board. “It was all a pleasant business,” says the senior officer. “My word yes a most pleasant business.”
The tone of the narrator in this short story contrasts with the actual events he describes. He witnessed the horrors of war and human suffering—panicked evacuees, dead children, dying old people, women forced to endure childbirth like animals, animals treated cruelly—yet he does not relate the incidents as if they meant anything to him. He mocks the Turkish officer as a “great friend,” and he matter-of-factly speaks about “clearing” dead babies off the pier. He speaks of an old woman’s death before his eyes as if it were a medical oddity, not the loss of a human being. He downplays the Greek citizens’ panic, saying it was not like they were fleeing an earthquake or similar. He describes women in childbirth in the ship’s hold as if he were describing a dog giving birth to puppies. He shows no emotion at all when he tells about the mistreated mules dumped into the water.
Beneath the matter-of-fact, unemotional tone of the narrator lies an irony that betrays the numbness a soldier experiences after seeing horror after horror. He uses civilized language sprinkled with British words like “chap” and “topping” and calls it all a “pleasant” business. He intends just the opposite, of course, and his use of irony and understatement underscores the numbness he has had to adopt in order to even speak of his experiences.