Manolis Axiotis is born into a farming family in a Greek village in the mountains above Ephesus, where life revolves around the fields and the olive and fig trees. But he gets on badly with his father and is sent to the bustling, cosmopolitan city of Smyrna and exposed to a much broader world. The villagers speak Turkish themselves and are on good terms with their Turkish neighbours; their lives follow patterns that have evolved over millennia. And Smyrna is a multi-ethnic city, shared by Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Levantines, and others. But the wars that start in 1912 and then 1914 herald a decade of violence that will destroy this world completely. Manolis is conscripted into the Ottoman army — or rather, as an untrusted Greek, into Labour Battalions which work in appalling conditions. He deserts and goes into hiding, leading a furtive underground life. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, he ends up as part of the Greek army and the disastrous campaign to take Ankara. And at the end he is caught up in the massacres involved in the ethnic cleansing of Smyrna.