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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Honor or Iskender by Elif Shafak

HonorElif Shafak is an author I’d been meaning to read.  Her novel, Flea Palace, has been sitting on my shelf for a long time.  So it’s mildly surprising that when I finally picked up one of her books it wasn’t Flea Palace but her newest novel – titled Honor in America & the UK… and Iskender everywhere else.

The writing is enchanting.  Let’s get that out of the way up front.  Elif Shafak has a beautiful, lyrical prose style that dazzles.  She’s a writer who pirouettes across the page, defying gravity and making it look easy.  It’s all very impressive.  At any second you expect her to cross the line – for the writing to become overdone, weighed down by flourishes, burdened by poetic imagery.  Yet that never happens.  She uses just the right amount of restraint.  Shafak embraces, but isn’t limited by style.

It helps that she has a preternatural ability to shift between characters  –  creating distinctive personalities and channeling the voices of men and women from a variety of backgrounds.  We’re allowed to inhabit their thoughts, and then to observe from the outside as they interact with each other.  Often within the space of a few paragraphs.

Iskender (the title I prefer) is the story of a Kurdish family that emigrates from Turkey to London in the 1970’s.  But Elif Shafak begins her plot a little before that in the rural Turkish village where the mother, Pembe, and her twin sister Jamilla live.  A young man named Adem visits and falls in love with Jamilla, but is told she is promised to another man.  And so he marries Pembe.

From the beginning the union is doomed, but Adem and Pembe have three children nonetheless.  The eldest son is named Iskender, the middle daughter Esma and the youngest (another son), Yunus.   The children acclimate quickly to England.  Their parents less so.  Adem begins gambling and takes up with a woman – who seems to work as an escort in the gambling den he visits – and deserts his family.  Pembe begins a friendship with a man named Elias who she meets secretly in old movie theaters.  Esma and Yunus have their own stories.  It is Iskender, an arrogant young man who is drifting towards radicalization, who stabs and kills his mother on learning that she is seeing a man.  It is an honor killing.  When the book begins Iskender is in prison.

That is the skeleton of the plot.  Onto it Shafak applies layer after layer of family dynamics, cultural identity and psychology.   Add to this  her beautiful prose and it’s hard not to fall in love with this book.  But Iskander has a weakness: the OCD attention to pivotal details.  I’m not exaggerating.  Shafak has the plot of her novel so tightly put together that you can hear the chapters clicking into place as you turn the page.  There is no minor detail in this book, so pay attention!  Actually, you could probably not pay attention and still not miss a thing.  Elif Shafak seems to be an adherent of Nabakov’s galley slave philosophy when it comes to “free will” for her characters and her readers.

Which is why Iskender is, on final examination, it too perfect a story.  Its author, you realize at the end, has a narrative agenda.  There’s a place Shafak intended to take her reader and she  carefully laid out the path to get there.  You are not encouraged to stray from that path. You are, instead, being moved from plot point to plot point to conclusion – with no ambiguity.  Suddenly those pirouettes seem less effortless and more practiced.

The last chapter of Iskender disappoints.  The plot twist, which isn’t entirely a twist, twists back on itself – becoming both emotionally manipulative and necessary only to the author.  Of course I won’t give the ending away, partly because up until I reached it I loved Iskender.  I was able to buy into these characters… until I didn’t anymore.

Publisher: Viking, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 6707 8483 7

Bare Facts – The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire & Germany’s Bid for World Power by Sean McMeekin

Welcome to Bare Facts: a new, monthly *crosses fingers* feature for 2013 which is all about non-fiction.  The books reviewed in Bare Facts are intended to help provide a historical, geographic and political context  – with subjects ranging from international history, politics, personalities on the world stage, religion, philosophy, etc.

“The Great Game” is the term used for the 19th and early 20th century struggle between Russia & Great Britain for control of the Middle/Near East.  Sean McMeekin’s book, The Berlin-Baghdad Express, examines the period surrounding the first World War, when Germany made their play at the region through strengthening their relations with the Ottoman Empire and building a railroad that ran from Berlin to Baghdad.  You’ll want to keep a map at your elbow while reading this book.

A warning:  train and railroad enthusiasts should contain their enthusiast because the title is somewhat misleading.  It refers to McMeekin’s premise that Germany & the Central Powers’ failure in the region was in a large part the result of their inability, due to geography and political conflicts, to build a continuous rail network between Berlin and Baghdad.  Unfortunately, as I just demonstrated, you don’t need 400+ pages to make this point. So, while some discussion happens at the beginning and the end of the book, the bulk of The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire & Germany’s Bid for World Power focuses on the complicated (and often preposterous) German machinations to incite a global jihad.

The Porte – the governing body of the Ottoman Empire – had recently been taken over by a group known as the “Young Turks”.  This new, progressive government attempted to put the nation on a more secular path.  In an attempt to reach his goal, the “sick old man of Europe” decided to throw his lot in with the Central Powers.  And while it played the board surprisingly well, the Ottoman Empire was in a tenuous situation from which it never managed to escape.  Germany and the British actively courted the Porte with gold and weapons, but Russia was a constant threat in the East.  The reality was that the “sick old man” was never viewed as more than a pawn in the Great Game played by these three powers.  Albeit a well-payed pawn.  (I particularly like this cartoon from Punch Magazine, showing the Kaiser loading a cannon with a shell representing Turkey – which pretty much shows the situation Turkey found themselves in)WWI Cartoon

But what a game it was!  Berlin-Baghdad Express is filled with fascinating historical minutiae – the kind of spy vs. spy drama seemingly more suited to a John LeCarre novel than something published by Harvard University Press.  (McMeekin is all too aware of the genre element in his story and makes frequent references the novel Greenmantle by John Buchan).   No author could ask for a more romantic period or place – this was the time of Lawrence of Arabia and the setting for the Indiana Jones films.  A colorful cast of whirling dervishes, sheiks and sultans, Bedouins and dragoman, archeologists and Orientalists, traipse across the page.  At one point even “the Duke of Westminster made an appearance, commanding a ‘Light Armoured Car Brigade’ which included ‘six armoured Rolls-Royces mounted with machine guns’.

The failure of Germany rested on more than an incomplete rail system.  Despite having what they thought were the necessary men on the ground, Orientalists who (like Lawrence) had supposedly “gone native”, there were still large holes in German understanding of how the Muslim religion operated.  Only after it was too late did they understand the subtle but important differences and delicate relationships between different sects (Shia & Sunni), tribes and – perhaps most importantly – between Arabs & Turks.  The following extract is wordy, taken from two separate chapters of the book, but it eloquently explains the opportunistic way in which the European powers attempted to manipulate their supposed allies.  That the Germans wore rose-colored glasses is an almost comical understatement of the situation.

Despite his own holy war promises to Kaiser Wilhelm, in October even Enver had cold feet about issuing a full-on global jihad declaration, for fear the Germans, too, would be ensnared if it were taken literally.  The result was a ‘proclamation of holy war against all Europeans with the exceptions of Austrians, Hungarians, and Germans’ – was something of a mess, neither uncompromising enough for the Germans, nor theologically proper enough to satisfy Muslim clerics.  Read literally, moreover, it meant that citizens of neutral countries could be targeted.  So, too, could Belgians, who were specifically named in Ottoman jihad decrees, and Serbians.  By contrasts, US citizens resident in Turkey were specially exempted, along with employees of American missionary colleges….

…Considering how much blood, arms and treasure the Germans had invested in summoning up the ancient spirit of Islamic holy war to bring down the Entente empires, one can understand the creeping sense of disappointment for each successive failure of Oppenheim’s jihad to ignite.  But a true scholar of Islam could have told the Germans exactly what to expect.  As infidels themselves, the Germans could hardly summon up a holy war on their own.  In terms of Islamic jurisprudence, the notion of selective jihad against some, but not all, Christians, as we saw in chapter 6 above, is nonsensical.  On the other hand, the practice of infidels paying for protection – as the Germans, in effect, were doing each time they asked Muslims to spare them while attacking other Christians – is firmly established in Islamic law.  The theological grounds for this jizya, or compulsory tax paid by non-Muslims, is explained clearly in the Koran, Sura 9:29: ‘Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden with hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth (even if they are) of the People of the Book [i.e. Christians and Jews], until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued’ (emphasis added).  German requests for Islamic fatvas and jihadi uprisings against the Entente powers may not have been conceived in Berlin as jizya offerings, but that may have been just how they were interpreted by many Turkish, Arab and Persian imams and clerics.

The product of ignorance?  A lot of gold was spent in the Middle East during the period between 1914-1915 to negligible effect.

The book’s final chapters carefully explain the context and future repercussions of these events.  Because WWII is essentially the lynchpin of 20th century history, McMeekin takes the time to discuss how the German’s cynical attempt to incite a targeted jihad was a precursor to the anti-Semitism of not only the Holocaust, but the attitudes that exist in the Middle East to this day.  He shows how Zionism, a movement which actually began in Germany, was embraced/co-opted by the British.  He deals with the Russian situation: where the Central Powers successful nurturing of the Bolshevik Revolution produced results beyond their wildest dreams.  Thankfully, The Berlin-Baghdad Express goes far beyond how for lack of proper train schedules a war was lost.

Publisher:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 674 05739 5

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