The Sultan of Byzantium by Selçuk Altun (translated from Turkish by Clifford Endres & Selhan Endres)

Sultan Poster.jpgIf you’re a fan of The DaVinci Code, The Historian and other novels that combine the conspiracy theory, mystery and thriller genres – then there’s a spot for The Sultan of Byzantium on your bookshelf.  And even if you aren’t a Dan Brown fan (like me) that shouldn’t stop you from becoming a Selçuk Altun fan.  Smart, funny, entertaining…The Sultan of Byzantium is what a Summer read should be.

The narrator (and hero) is a young Turkish professor living in Istanbul.  He cuts a remarkably debonaire, Cary Grant-esque figure.  A confirmed bachelor, he spends his Summers traveling the world, climbing mountains and generally living life large.  He has a way with the ladies.  Altun quickly moves through his hero’s background information – a strange, but genuinely happy childhood despite his parents divorcing and his father disappearing into the ether – and moves right into the main story.   Sometime in his early thirties he receives a letter summoning him to a mysterious meeting with three men who represent a shadowy organization known as Nomo.  They explain to him that he is the direct descendant of the last ruler of the Byzantine empire.  Making him the new Emperor of Byzantium-in-exile.  But in order to prove that he is truly “the one” he must first complete a series of tests.  On successful completion of these he will be given a final task, one left in Nomo’s keeping 500 years earlier by Constantine XI. (Yes, the man himself).  Oh, and as a side perk, he’ll gain access to the sizable wealth of the empire.

The tasks themselves aren’t particularly intriguing.  Altun doesn’t have Brown’s affinity for puzzles.  Fortunately the fact that the spotlight is so obviously trained on Byzantine history guarantees that this weakness doesn’t impact the story in the least.  As our hero and his entourage move from one historic location to another the plot unfolds very naturally.  In fact, it evolves at such a leisurely pace that you don’t even notice that the entire time Altun has been carefully moving all his pieces into place.  The denouement is skillfully executed.  And there’s the sense that all the while he’s been distracting you – that this was Altun’s plan the entire time – with a dry, subtle humor.

Selçuk Altun has a tongue-in-cheek narrative style reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels.  When his hero asks the representatives how Nomo can be so sure that he is the one they have been waiting for, the following is put forward as proof of his nobility –

“… Despite family difficulties, you did not turn into a problem child.  You were a hard-working, honest and popular student.  You continued your success in some of the most prominent universities in the world.  You’re an intellectual and art-lover who can speak nine languages.  You didn’t try to sneak out of your compulsory military service.  You could enter the political life, if the conditions were favorable, of any country whose passport you carried.  You’ve got too much honor to take orders from other people, and too much pride to flirt with the girls.  You go to bed with two women at a time; if you happen to come eye-to-eye with a lion it turns into a housecat.  Your air of mystery is respectable.  Sir, you are the emperor that Byzantium-in-exile has been awaiting for the last 555 years!”

He also loves small children, rescues orphans, honors his grandmother and plays a killer chess game.

If you aren’t paying attention you might miss it… the underlying irreverence. I didn’t start to appreciate it until halfway through.  But it was the satirical voice of The Sultan of Byzantium that won me over.

Part of that irreverence takes the form of cameos Selçuk Altun makes in his own story.  Very post-modern.  And so frequently, and inexplicably, that even his narrator has cause to comment on it.  After meeting Selçuk Altun at a party he muses “It was odd that this writer, whose works I never read, was manipulating me as if I were one of his characters.”  And later, in a completely superfluous but utterly charming moment:

I went out and bought a suit and tie for the meeting at the Hackett, simply because it was my father’s favorite namesake.  On my return I ran into Selçuk Altun and his wife getting off the elevator in the lobby.  It was certainly a surprise.  I raised my Hackett shopping bags in humorous homage, and wondered about the possibility of seeing him as a Nomo member.

The translators, Clifford and Selhan Endres, do a wonderful job of capturing the author’s tone.  This book, though, is slow to start and has a short slump in the middle.  (All that Byzantine history, fascinating as it is, can get a little tangled.)  But the translation becomes stronger and the prose richer as the book progresses.  So while The Sultan of Byzantium isn’t a perfect book,  it is an  exciting one.  The writing of Selçuk Altun intrigues me.  Telegram has already published two of his earlier novels:  Songs My Mother Never Taught Me and (also translated by Clifford and Selhan Endres) Many and Many A Year Ago.  Both appear to be thrillers, set in Turkey, in the same vein as The Sultan of Byzantium.  I’ve already downloaded samples of both.

Publisher:  London, Telegram (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 85659 148 8

 

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