Review — ISLES OF THE BLIND by Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan)

isles-blind-140 Isles of the Blind
Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 1994–96)
March 2016
496 pages
$17.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Peter Van Deekle (Iran 1968–70)

Peace Corps service provides for every Volunteer a unique and life-changing series of experiences that become enriched and enhanced through sharing with others. Robert Rosenberg, like others who have recognized the value of living in a foreign culture, has engaged his highly perceptive and creative mind toward this end.

He is Associate Professor of English and teaches fiction courses at Bucknell, and holds an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, as a Fulbright Scholar in India, and has taught in both Istanbul and on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. For his new novel Isles of the Blind, he draws upon his first-hand experiences as a resident in the Middle East.

The author uses his knowledge of the history of Jewish residents in Turkey, along with his personal life in Istanbul. Rosenberg’s novel, initially titled The Princes’ Islands, was later changed to Isles of the Blind — reflecting the metaphorical relationship of this island group to the personal “blindness” of the novel’s central characters.

The novel’s themes include the multi-generation history of a Jewish family who must leave Spain for the relative safety and opportunities in Ottoman Turkey. The central figure, Avram Benezra, is the oldest son, whose life is forever colored by his younger brother Yusuf’s progressive cystic fibrosis. Rosenberg vividly introduces political, historical and cultural events in a compelling tale of a minority community living in a Muslim Turkish culture that is rapidly coming of age in the modern world.

The family experiences a series of misfortunes made all the more significant given the prominence of its Jewish traditions and cultural norms. The brothers grow apart and, following the sudden tragedy of Yusuf’s death, Avram (in the novel’s central core) seeks to “resolve the puzzle that had been our relationship, and come to terms with my dead brother for good.”

The Benezra family found an idyllic summer cottage on “the largest [island] of a small archipelago off the Asian coast, that “had become a vacation ghetto for the city’s prosperous minorities.” Historically, the islands became known as the Princes’ Islands, where “new monarchs established the brutal practice of exiling their predecessors . . . where they were blinded.”

Robert Rosenberg skillfully describes the family’s sense of devotion, strained obligation, and, ultimately, guilt amid the turbulent social and political dynamics of the modern Middle East. His characters persevere despite the circumstances they unwittingly foster, and their reality becomes all the more credible through the author’s adroit character development and his perceptive observation of converging cultures.

Reviewer Peter Van Deekle (Iran, 1968-70) began his Peace Corps service informally in the summer of 1963, as a teenage volunteer at headquarters in Washington, D.C. From that time onward he planned to serve abroad, and joined the 20th group of Volunteers to Iran in 1968, following graduation from the University of Pennsylvania (which, coincidentally, was highly influential in shaping many of Pahlavi University’s [Shiraz] departments and institutions.  

Deekle met his wife, Barbara Maier (Iran 1968–70) during service and both taught English in local schools. He has been an academic administrator in a variety of public and private colleges and universities since his return to the United States and currently, having retired to the Washington, D.C. area where he is the Community News Editor for the National Peace Corps Association. He and his wife live near one of their two children in suburban Maryland. 

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