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Historical novel set in Istanbul
11th October 2018
Like A Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan (translated by Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi) – an historical novel set in Istanbul.
First, a confession. I am not normally a great lover of historical fiction… I read Like A Sword Wound because of the back story of the author, Ahmet Altan. Ahmet is well known world wide as a crusading journalist – and in Turkey he is also recognised as a best selling novelist and essayist. In late 2017 he was brought to trial on the flimsiest of evidence connecting him to the attempted coup in 2016. In February this year he, his brother, and two others were sentenced to life imprisonment. One of the conditions imposed was that they be locked in the cells 23 hours of each and every day.
Like A Sword Wound is the opening book in the Ottoman Quartet series, first published in 1998. It is also the first of the series to be translated into English. It is set in Istanbul around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Ottoman Empire had an absolute ruler, the Sultan, who was surrounded by a retinue of pashas (roughly the equivalent of lords or knights) who behaved pretty much as they wished – providing the Sultan didn’t find out or couldn’t be bothered to care. They controlled the streets of Istanbul by fear. Several junior military officers (‘young Turks’) were plotting to overthrow the Sultan and establish a constitutional ruler. They feared the corruption and violence of the country would hold back progress for Turkey in the modern world. They worked in secret and somewhat unconnected cells. Success was eventually theirs.
The story is told through the eyes of Osman, a middle aged man living alone in modern Turkey. He is visited in turn by the dead members of one of the more prominent families living in Istanbul at the turn of the centuries. They each recall slightly different versions of the same family history. There is Osman’s great grandfather, Sheikh Yusuf Efendi, a religious man who was the leader of a tekke (a monastery of dervishes) – many came to seek his counsel and advice. Then there is Osman’s grandfather, Ragip Bey, a young lieutenant in the Ottoman army – and a childhood friend of one of Osman’s great grandfather’s loyal disciples, Hasan Efendi. Then the Sultan’s personal physician and confident (Resit Pasha), his estranged wife (Mihrisah Sultan), and their son, Hüseyin Hikmet Bey, who is the second husband of Osman’s grandfather’s first wife, Mehpare Haním. This is a young lady with the most varied and voracious sexual appetite (witness the involvement of various French governesses in their love making…). A series of complex but meaningful relationships.
Like A Sword Wound is beautifully written and translated. My only problem is that I found the names of the various pashas and beys (the next level down in the hierarchy) more than a little confusing. There is an ‘Index of Characters’ for the main protagonists at the beginning of the book. For me it would have been useful to carry this forward to the second tier actors as well. But this is only a minor criticism. The book kept me involved and fascinated until the end.
I learnt a great deal about Turkish history of the period. And I learnt it in a totally absorbing way.
Tony for the TripFiction team
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