on 12 August 2007
I have read the Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone and I recommend them for the refreshing knowledge and historicity Mr. Goodwin sheds on the Ottoman Empire and on Istanbul in particular. The churches, mosques, and city landmarks are all woven seamlessly into a murder mystery with solid, but not compelling, curiosity. What disturbed me was the idealization of the Turkish people, even the imperial and brutal Sultans. He refers rightly to Turks as "Stambouliots" rather than Turks (because they are denizens of Istanbul), however he doesn't refer to the other ethnic groups in that way (Greek, Armenian, Albanian, Jew, Italian). Moreover, the Greeks in particular are singled out and portrayed as loud, boorish, and peasant-like in all cases except one. The author even goes to the extent of creating a special incorrect dialogue for one Greek vegetable peddler to demonstrate his vulgarity and ignorance. No Turk is ever portrayed as anything close to peasant-like. Now all of this is strange given that Istanbul, the Turkish city, was built on Constantinople and Byzantium, more than a1,500 years of Greek religious and cultural traditions and history. It is the seat of Orthodox Christianity, a Holy City, and deserves at least a passing acknowledgment of the debt paid to its "Greekness." After all, where does he think all those delicious recipes came from?! The author describes a city that was essentially civilized by Turks overnight, and this is patently false (though his story is dependent on Ayia Sophia, one of the Wonders of the World, for example,no attempt is made to describe the sublime beauty of that church, either at its zenith as a Greek temple or as an architectural miracle). It would enhance the credibility of the story, not to mention the author, if all ethnic groups were treated respectfully and with greater believable dimensionality. Character development, in particular, is shallow in this novel but is offset by a travelogue of the city of Istanbul built around a solid whodunit.
on 8 December 2007
Constantinople in the 1830's and French archeologist Max Lefevre has arrived in the city, reputedly to barter for some lost Byzantine relics in the hope that they will provide his way to wealth and glory. Meanwhile, local eunuch Yashim is welcome in a variety of social circles, content to live in his small apartment while also dining out in many of the cosmopolitan cafes and even shopping in many of the markets situated in the Grand Bazaar with their cornucopia of perfect fruits and vegetables.
Possessed of a fierce intellect and a real gift for listening and quiet questioning, Yashim has learned to separate himself from his emotions as he readily moves between the refined world of Topkapi Palace and the poorer streets of Constantinople, always on the lookout for sinister doings in this thriving city where Jews, Greeks, Muslims, and even Christians have lived peacefully together for years in an environment that is largely free of menace.
Times, however, are changing. The Sultan Mahmut II, who for thirty years has presided over many changes to the Ottoman state, lies in his palace dying of tuberculosis and cirrhosis of the liver, his illness causing a bitterness and uneasiness to circulate throughout the Empire. Against this backdrop of collective restlessness, a series of violent murders are committed, which echo throughout the communal alleyways of the city.
The first to die is Yashim's friend George, a friendly merchant trader who is found beaten and left for dead in the street, and then the elderly Goulandris, a native Greek who deals in old books and curiosities is found murdered in his shop. What could possibly be happening in this city that has suddenly become so overrun with mountebanks, schemers, and dealers of every nationality, the city "like a serpent intent to shed its skin." Perhaps both George and Goulandris were simply victims of the same unease that seems to be sweeping though Istanbul.
Meanwhile, the wife of Monsieur Mavrogordato invites Yashim to her house to tell him that the Frenchman Max Lefevre has recently visited asking for a small loan. In the course of the discussion the man made certain offers that were in some sense disquieting, apparently there was a proposal made to sell her husband something. Madame Mavrogordato would like Yashim to encourage Monsieur Lefevre to conduct his research elsewhere.
Determined to get to the bottom of Lefevre's motivations and perhaps discover whether he is connected to the murders, Stanislaw Palewski, the Polish ambassador and Yashim's best friend, invites Lefevre to dinner. But their evening together sheds little light on Lefevre's Machiavellian schemes, if indeed he has any. One thing is for sure: throughout the course of the meal Yashim decides that he doesn't particularly like this strange and enigmatic Frenchman who isn't being particularly honest with either him or Palewski.
Then one night Lefevre appears at Yashim's door, stumbling across the threshold, dragging a leather satchel into the room behind him, and appearing shrunken, and incredibly aged, his black eyes darting nervously from side to side, begging for help and fearing for his life... There was something rather terrible about being a stranger in a city where even the dead belonged. "Some people get the wrong idea, they think of me as a grave robber, but I bring lost treasures to light, I bring them back to life," he fanatically tells Yashim.
Taking pity on him, Yashim helps Lefevre escape on a boat bound for France, But when his body is later discovered back in Istanbul, savagely mauled, the accompanying report from the French ambassador changes everything and Lefevre's death taking on a terrible, public urgency, the report containing graphic details of a bizarre act of savagery, even as Yashim swears he caught a glimpse of the Frenchman again the next day, outside his local fish market.
As Jason Goodwin's complicated plot races along, Yashim realizes that his involvement with the archaeologist has at best been foolish, the slur marking him like a stain on his character, a faint question now hanging over his good judgment. The eunuch finds himself is thrown into a boiling pot of fervor, faith and political intrigue in a city where even the dead belong and where people are steadily casting off their skins like snakes as they move from one incarnation to another.
Yashim must match wits to unravel the strange mystery of these gruesome murders which hinge on tatty paperbound copy of book by the French author Balzac, one of the very books the terrified Lefevre had spilled out apologetically across the floor before he died; the confessions of the beautiful Madame Amelie Lefevre who has been of all things unexpected; and a secret society called Hetira, who despise the current kingdom of Greece, but are strangely devoted to the restoration of the Greek Empire. Mike Leonard December 07.