Two Gothic Novels – Old & New

Château D’Argol by Julien Gracq, translated from French by Louise Varèse
Publisher: Pushkin Press, London (2013)
ISBN: 978 1 78227 004 1
The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
Publisher: Doubleday, New York (2014)
ISBN:  978 0 38553 815 2

Château d’Argol

Like real estate, a Gothic novel is all about location, location, location.  Whether it be a Southern Manse, a moldering European castle or a gloomy family estate – success ultimately depends on the setting.  Once an author gets that right everything else is up for grabs.  Hero or heroine? Truly horrid or amusingly satirical? Supernatural explanations or Scooby Doo ending?  No one cares as long as there’s at least one secret passageway.

Published in France in 1938, Julien Gracq’s Château D’Argol was influenced by the late German Romantics (taking as one of its themes the idea that genius is supernatural and unable to exist within societal norms) and the work of Andre Breton (to whom the novel was dedicated).  Albert is a wealthy, indolent and arrogant young man – an intellectual who espouses the philosophies of Hegel – who has purchased an isolated medieval castle on the coastline of Brittany.  A huge estate surrounded by a dark forest and near the water – Albert spends the beginning of the novella exploring it while he awaits the arrival of his best friend, Herminien.

Herminien, when he arrives, brings with him a beautiful young woman named Heide. Somewhat predictably a love triangle forms between the three. Heide, though, is not the apex of this triangle. Despite a promising start, where she intellectually holds her own with the two friends, she quickly assumes the role of an object to be passed between them. Each man using her as a kind of surrogate for the other.  Theirs is the true relationship driving the plot of Château D’Argol. Albert, particularly, is obsessed by his cynical and jaded friend.  His interest in Heide no more than an extension of that obsession. Herminian’s motives are harder to place. Heide is one in a long line of lovers – all of whom (according to Albert) are eventually treated cruelly and ridiculed.  How Herminian views Albert – the my impression is that Herminian does not possess Albert’s wealth or resources, making his motivations predatory.  The result is a dark, disturbing and violent tale.

The nature of the violence obfuscated by the flowery, antiquated language of the prose (reminiscent of William Morris’ work).* Château D’Argol features almost no dialogue.  Instead, metaphors saturate Gracq’s writing – descriptions of the landscape providing insight into the characters’ psyches.  His repeated reliance on metaphor to create tension can (particularly in today’s world of pared down prose) feel overdone.  And yet, in the context of a gothic tale – it works. The metaphors thicken the prose, imbuing it with menace, building layers of foreshadowing.  Nature is a harbinger.  The paragraph below eventually ends with Albert receiving news of Herminian’s & Heide’s imminent arrival.

The storm was raging over Storrvan.  Heavy clouds with jagged edges rushed out of the west, almost brushing against the tower, and at moments enveloping it in streamers of vertiginous white mist.  But the wind, above all the wind-filled space with its unbridled and appalling power.  Night had almost fallen.  The tempest, passing as though through a head of fragile hair, opened quick fugitive furrows through the masses of grey trees, parting them like blades of grass, and for the space of a second one could see the bare soil,black rocks, the narrow fissures of the ravines.  Madly the storm twisted this grey mane! Out of it came an immense rustling; the trunks of the trees, before hidden by the frothing leaves, were bared now by the wind’s furious blasts; one could see their frail grey limbs as taught as ship’s rigging. And they yielded, they yielded – a dry crackling was the prelude to the fall, then suddenly a thousand cracklings could be heard, a cascade of resounding noises drowned by the howling of the storm, and the giants were engulfed. Now the shower let loose the icy chill of its deluge like the brutal volley of handfuls of pebbles, and the forest answered with the metallic reverberation of its myriad leaves. Bare rocks glinted like ominous cuirasses, the liquid yellowish splendour of the wet fog crowned for an instant the crest of each forest tree, for an instant a yellow and luminous and marvellously translucid band shone along the horizon against which every branch stood silhouetted, and made the drenched stones of the parapet, Albert’s blond hair soaked by the rain, the cold wet fog rolling around the tops of the trees, shine with a golden gleam, icy and almost inhuman – then went out and night fell like the blow of an axe.

The elaborate style and tangled symbolism is more suited to a 19th century author than to one writing in the 2oth.  Gracq’s American contemporaries – Hemingway, Fitzgerald & Faulkner – had all published their modernist masterpieces a decade before.**  Joyce’s Finnegans Wake would be released a year later in 1939.  Even to readers in 1938, Château D’Argol must have seemed of another age.

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The Supernatural Enhancements also can be categorized as a gothic novel.  One updated to more suit our modern world.  Think Gothic Fusion. Edgar Cantero is  a Catalan author who writes in three languages: Spanish, Catalan & English. For this book he chose English and borrows from the idea of the Gothic novel only to quickly abandon it in favor of a DaVinci Code style puzzler.

The initial premise/setting is similar to Château D’Argol in that a young man, referred to only as A., finds himself in possession of a rambling estate.  A’s house is located in Virginia, left to him by a distant relative he’s never met.  He and his companion/love interest: a punk rock, teenage girl who happens to be mute (I feel as if there should be a more eloquent way to write that, but there you are) travel from Europe to America.  They arrive and  discover that A.’s relative died under sinister circumstances – by jumping out his third story bedroom window.  More distressing is the revelation that this particular mode of suicide runs in the family. The deceased relative’s father also committed suicide in the same way, from the same window… as may have his grandfather (I’m a bit fuzzy on the geneology). Regardless, our two protagonists soon discover that their new home is the meeting place for a secret society.  And that a ghost lurks in one of the bathrooms.  And that a general curse seems to hang over the place.  And if you think I just gave everything away, you couldn’t be more wrong.

The narrative is told through letters, journal entries, video recordings and interviews.  Every time you think Cantero has run out of plot twists another one appears.   Not always to the good.  The Supernatural Enhancements is entertaining at a very superficial level.  Cantero introduces so many characters, ideas and strange digressions (the book is a veritable encyclopedia on how to break a code) that when it comes time to wrap up the actual mysteries it feels very hastily done.  I half expect there to be a sequel (which I doubt I will read).

The Supernatural Enhancements did make me wonder: what would a true 21st century gothic novel look like?  Val McDermid’s redux of Northanger Abbey?  Anne Rice’s  The Witching Hour (a good, stand-alone book though I found the other two parts of the trilogy unreadable) and  Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind trilogy occurred tome, but are out of the running if only because of the periods they are set in.  There needs to be technology included in the plot in a meaningful way and more of a sense of a global world – something Edgar Cantero attempts to incorporate into The Supernatural Enhancements but which is overwhelmed by minutiae.  Or is the contemporary gothic novel already here?  The purview of the Sci-Fi / Fantasy author?

What do you think, readers – Have you read any good gothic novels lately?

 

*Gracq  referred to Chateau D’Argol as a “demonic” retelling of Percifal.  The Grail Legend was a favorite among the Pre-Raphaelites who surrounded Morris.   Not to mention influential in Morris’ own writing – particularly his classic fantasy novel The Wood Beyond the World.

**The Sun Also Rises (1926), The Great Gatsby (1925) & The Sound & The Fury (1929).

The Island of Last Truth by Flavia Company, translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin

Dr. Matthew Prendel is an enigma.  Attractive, quiet, independently wealthy – he is the perennial subject of cocktail party gossip.  The most persistent rumor being that he was once shipwrecked on a deserted island.  We’re told Prendel’s tale, the “true” version of what happened to him, from his lover.  The conceit of the novel is that she,  Phoebe Westore, is the author, not Flavia.  The book is written in such a way as to support this illusion, opening with a preface where Phoebe explains her relationship to Dr. Prendel.  She reveals the promise she made to Prendel to write down the story of the shipwreck only after his death.  The Island of Last Truth is her fulfilling that promise.

We were lovers for almost seven years.  One of my aims was to endure longer than his shipwreck.  As if some kind of rivalry or a competition could be established with something like that.  “You always want to defeat impossible opponents, Phoebe; opponents that aren’t even there.  You take after your mother.”  My victory has been bitter and, in truth, transient, because a “shipwreck” endures much longer than a shipwreck.  It is like a lantern: it illuminates what you shine it on and the rest as well.

I don’t want to give too much away.  The plot is full of unexpected shifts.  Company wastes no time getting her protagonist onto the island and, once there, piles on the suspense.  Prendel is not alone on the island. Nor does the story end with him escaping it.  Nor is it all about him.

“…Part adventure story, part noir, and part mystery…”* I would add psychological thriller to that list.  Laura McGloughlin has written a nuanced translation that captures all of the melancholia and foreboding of Flavia Company’s strange and wonderful novel.  What works best in The Island of Last Truth is the perspective from which it is told.  The main body of the book, describing Prendel’s experiences, are told to us in the third person by Phoebe.  The rhythm of her voice remains consistent as it moves from Preface, to storytelling, and the end of the book where she attempts to fill the gaps in the story she’d been told.  So fully realized a character is she that an image begins to form in the reader’s mind: of Phoebe listening to Prendel as he tells her his adventure.  And then later writing it all down, occasionally pausing to stare into the distance, lost in her memories.  It’s all very intimate.  This is not only a book about a shipwreck, but about a woman trying to make sense of the enigmatic man with whom she had a relationship with for over seven years.  A man, she comes to realize, she never knew at all.

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 60945 081 6

*taken from the jacket copy

The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber (translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid)

 
 
 
 

 

– excerpt from the United Nations Report of the International Independent Investigation Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (2005).  Popularly known as “The Mehlis Report”.

Rabee Jaber’s gorgeously written and brilliantly conceived novel – let’s establish that right out of the gate – is set in the days leading up to the release of UN Security Council Resolution 1595:  The Mehlis Report.  And while it isn’t necessary to know the history to enjoy the book (I learned most of of the information included in this review only after I’d finished reading) knowing a little bit about Lebanon and the events leading into to the story is helpful.

With that in mind:  Lebanon, like Belgium, might be considered a victim of its geography.  Both Syria and Israel loom at its borders.  The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the details of which I’m not going into, resulted in internationally sanctioned invasions and occupations of Lebanon by both these neighbors.  Israel sent troops into Southern Lebanon in 1982, where they remained for almost two decades.  Syrian forces invaded even earlier, in 1976, eventually occupying two-thirds of the country.  It was Former Prime Minister Harriri’s assassination, spawning peaceful protests known in the West as the Cedar Revolution and Intifadat-al-Istiqlal in Lebanon, which precipitated Syria’s withdrawal in 2006.  Thus ending almost 30 years of continuous foreign occupation.

Jaber’s The Mehlis Report takes place in 2006 after the protests have begun and a few weeks prior to the release of the UN report investigating Harriri’s death.  Tensions in Beirut are high.  Everyone is talking about and speculating on what Mehlis’ (the German Special Investigator appointed by the UN) Report will reveal.  A middle-aged architect named Saman Yarid is no less effected than those around him.  We are privy to conversations between Saman and his two sisters (one now living in Baltimore and the other in Paris).  It is a close family.  The sisters worry about his safety. They feel it is time that he, too , leave Lebanon.  He knows they are probably right… and yet he stays.  And takes long walks saturated with memories of war, family and the changing landscape of Beirut.

Saman’s Beirut is a place laden with portent.  He comes from a family of architects, his father and his grandfather founded the firm in which he works, and so he has an intimate knowledge of every square foot of the city.  He’s constantly comparing the new buildings and construction to what he remembers from his childhood or to the time before the war.

He passes the BLOM bank and the new sidewalk behind the buildings on Maarad Street that descends to the Place de l’Étoile.  There aren’t many customers on this side of the street either.  Spotlights light up Roman columns underneath the street.  Crowns of sculptured marble.  Thresholds.  Grass sprouting among the stones.  He’s seen the plans for this park.  And the long winding path among the ruins.  When will this park be completed?  The view will be different on this side once the park’s finished.  The fish market was here before the war, behind the Banca di Roma.  He used to come here with his father.  The bank has since moved to Al-Omari Mosque Street.  Its building collapsed during the war.  Or rather, half collapsed, and the Solidere bulldozers removed the other half.  These columns were discovered beneath the debris, after the rubble was dug up and dumped into the sea.  The plan had been to put up some buildings here.  The Roman columns changed that plan.  Saman has the very first map of the ruins in his office.  And he has the amended maps as well…

The Mehlis Report is a ghost story in more ways than one.

There was a third Yarid sister, Josephine, who was the victim of a brutal kidnapping 22 years ago.  During the war.  She provides a second, stranger, layer of narrative – speaking to us from a kind of limbo.  She resides in an underworld that is also Beirut, but different.  This shadow city is inhabited by ghosts who remain connected to their former lives through books, a compulsive need to write (a self-reference by Jaber?) and continuous observation of those still living.  Whereas Saman’s story is told in the third person, Josephine narrates in the first.  This lends an intensity and desperation to her part of the story that is incredibly disturbing.  Like in the following excerpt where she attempts to contact her brother.  She calls him on his cell phone.  Though he receives the calls, he doesn’t recognize the number and doesn’t pick up.  She keeps calling, but when he eventually answers he’s unable to hear her voice.

I see you all by yourself, Saman.  You want to know what binds you to this city, but you don’t know.  It’s like your guts are tied to Beirut’s, and you don’t know why.  You go your way while your eyes drink in the buildings and the streets, the city’s hidden nooks.  Wrought iron doors.  Polished walls. How many cities are hidden in the belly of this one city?  At rare times, you see all of those cities together.  At night, when you push the window open, outwards, and hear the wooden shutters bang against the wall and then retreat into the darkness, your heart jumps.  It doesn’t jump because of the sound of wood striking wood:  you’re not scared of that noise.  You’re not scared it will wake up the naked woman under the sheets.  Like you, she drank a lot before going to sleep.  You can tell she’s sound asleep from her breathing.  Even if they started shelling the city right now, she still wouldn’t open her eyes.  “And if it weren’t for my headache, I wouldn’t have woken up.”

Josephine is as chained to the city as her brother.  She refuses let go of her ties to the living world.  She is haunted by her former life, just as those left alive are haunted by their memories of the dead.  And so we are given two evocative descriptions of Beirut, one from above and the other from below.  This inability to release, to let go, is the source of the tension in The Mehlis Report.

The writing, as already mentioned, is gorgeous.  Rabee Jaber uses a shadow world of ghosts and memory to explain a place he obviously feels very strongly about.   And Kareem James Abu-Zeid deserves praise for his stunning translation of a novel that depends as heavily on capturing “atmosphere” as it does prose.  Moving with Saman Yarid through the streets of Beirut it’s hard not to believe you’re experiencing the sites, smells and tangibles first hand.  In Josephine’s voice Jaber describes the same city’s soul. The cumulative effect of both narratives is an incredibly poignant expression of love for this war torn, shifting city that is perpetually rising from its own ashes.

Rabee Jaber is the youngest author to win the International Arabic Fiction Prize, which he was awarded in 2012.

Publisher:  New Directions, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 2064 4

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The Healer: A Novel by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the original Finnish by Lola Rogers

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What makes the dystopian future described by Finnish author Antti Tuomainen  so disturbing is that it so closely resembles parts of the world we live in today.  He’s made the canny decision to dispense with futuristic tech and all the other trappings we’ve come to associate with the post-apocalypse: Mad Maxx gangs roaming a barren landscape, the rich farming the poor like domesticated cattle, the rise of the machines, etc.  None of those factor into Tuomainen’s vision for the future:  a place where we still live in houses and apartments, have jobs (if we’re lucky), call for cabs on crowded streets, shop for clothes and scan the tabloids for dirt on the latest pop sensation.

Instead he shows us how we have created the circumstances which will eventually end us.

That’s the whole problem in the first place… That everyone got to choose.  Endlessly, with no limits.  That’s why we’re here today….As if electronics wrapped in plastic or cotton irrigated with drinking water could ever be anything but a detriment, the cause of the destruction, replacing something irreplaceable with a pile of trash…

I don’t think a more frightening scenario exists.  Which is exactly what the author intends.

The Healer is set in an unspecified future where the consequences of climate change have only recently made themselves apparent – at least in the cataclysmic sense.  Resources haven’t been completely depleted, but they are running out.  Refugees are arriving in the Northern hemisphere en masse.  Finland, a country that occupies a total area of 130,596 geographic square miles (that’s 16,446 square miles less than the state of Montana), has become one giant refugee camp.  Everything is chaos.  Disease is rampant.  Food and shelter are running out.  There’s 13 wars/conflicts happening in the EU.  The reader is witnessing the breakdown of civilization.  Tuomainen has his protagonist describe evenings spent at the apartment window, sipping coffee and looking at dozens of orange pinpoints of light in the distance.  They are giant fires, built by the displaced, dotting the landscape.

Helsinki is the place where everyone is escaping to. Readers are given hints, but are for the most part left on their own to conjure the places the refugees are escaping from. We get a sense of the dire situation when the book’s hero is befriended by a cab driver, a “young North African man” named Hamid who will prove to be worth his weight in gold.

Hamid liked Finland.  Here, at least, there was some possibility of making good – he might even be able to start a family here.

I listened to his fast-flowing, broken English and watched him in profile.  A narrow, light-brown face, alert, nut-brown eyes in the rearview mirror; quick hands on the steering wheel.  Then I looked at the city flashing by, the flooded streets glistening, puddles the size of ponds, shattered windows, doors pried from their hinges, cars burned black, and people wandering in the rain.  Where I saw doom, Hamid saw hope.

It’s a slow and steady decline towards extinction. And into this environment Tuomainen has plotted a missing person case that is completely riveting.  There is no one, catastrophic, event that put us in this place. Just a series of bad decisions.

Tapani Lehtinen, the hero and narrator, isn’t a detective.  He’s a poet whose last collection was published four years earlier.  His wife, Johanna, is a journalist investigating an eco-terrorist turned serial killer known only as “The Healer”.   When the book opens she’s been missing for approximately 24 hours.  All Tapani has to begin his search with is a phone call from Johanna he recorded by mistake.  She tells him she’ll be away overnight, following a lead.  Her last words to him are: “See you tomorrow at the latest.  I love you.”

Tapani attempts to go to the police for help, even approaching an Inspector who Johanna had once helped to solve an important case.  But, like everything else, the force is in disarray.  They can’t keep up with the influx of people and crime.  Private security companies are popping up everywhere – often doing more harm than good.  Everyone with the resources to do so has fled even farther North.  In the end all the Inspector can offer Tapani is police resources:  video footage, access to information, and the occasional assist.  There’s no man-power to spare.

It turns out to be enough.  The trail Tapani follows is made up of his & Johanna’s shared and individual histories.  As the plot develops it’s close to impossible to stop reading.  Everything feels so plausible.  Each revelation becomes another piece in the natural progression of events.  As for the translation – it’s fantastic.  Whether Lola Roger has been completely faithful to the original I can’t say.  But I’ve always looked at the act of translation as being a collaboration between an author and translator – the result of which should be judged on its own merit and not just  as a variation of a form (bear with me: I’m getting a little Platonic here).  The English translation of The Healer  is a fully realized and beautifully written book in and of itself.

The ending, particularly, is brilliant.  I’ve seen it described as an “open ending” in some reviews, which to me implies that there might be a sequel.  That would be a shame.  Without giving anything away (brief tangent: did anyone else read Joyce Carol Oates NYRB reviews of two of Derek Raymond’s “Factory” novels/mysteries?  She gives away the killer for BOTH books!  WHO does THAT????!) the ending is perfectly in tune with the world Tuomainen describes.  In addition, it structurally reflects the novel’s over-arcing message and is a clever piece of writing.  Any other direction he might have gone in would have felt contrived and cliché.  Instead, it is the best part of the book.  No small compliment when describing a book this good.  Like Eliot, Tuomainen sees the power in allowing the world to end.  Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Healer is Antti Tuomainen’s third novel.  It won the Clue Award for the Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2011 and was subsequently translated into 26 different languages.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9554 8

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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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