Sunday, July 10, 2005

Under Constantinople's Spell

Reviewed by Dorin Perie

City of Man’s Desire: A Novel of Constantinople, by Cornelia Golna, appeared some months ago, brought out by the small, independent-minded publishing company, Go-Bos Press. Before examining the content of the book, I feel bound as a critical reader to note that we are dealing here with an exceptional publication in the literary world. It is clear from the start that Cornelia Golna’s debut novel was an ambitious project, as the historical novel genre – of which, in my opinion, this book is an excellent example – is not only demanding but full of pitfalls. This may also be the reason why so few writers nowadays venture to enter its terrain, not to mention the relatively little interest the general reading public shows for it. This is especially the case if the novel deals with the history of places that for various reasons do not rank high in public opinion. And it holds doubly for the Balkans and their tumultuous history. As a writer you have to be very motivated indeed to embark on such an undertaking, knowing that you are going against all prevailing prejudices. In order to be successful, you must be prepared to put on a tight straightjacket. The historical novel offers relatively little room for unbridled imagination and boundless subjectivity if it wants to avoid degenerating into a pulp scenario. The crucial feature of a responsible historical novel, in contrast to other forms of literary fiction, is the believability of the framework in which the plot unfolds and of the characters involved in it. And it is here that Cornelia Golna excels.

Little by little, in the beginning chapters, the lost world of Constantinople at the start of the twentieth century comes to life, so that after a few dozen pages, the reader experiences it as a natural reality. The movements of the characters in the first part of the book seem aimed at giving a topographic description of the city. The reader is guided as it were by the characters through the quarters of the city in which they lead their daily lives. Thus emerges the image of a city that inspired the fascination of many and was the object of desire of its conquerors.

In 324 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine made the city his capital. Because of strong Greek cultural predominance during the late empire and the wealth of the Greek cities of Asia Minor, the center of power had moved gradually eastward. At that time, the notion of two worlds within the borders of the empire did not exist. The various divisions of the empire were the result of measures taken to combat internal instability or withstand the pressures of violent attacks from the outside. The effect of this shift was that Rome declined and Constantinople prospered. Almost a thousand years would pass before the first signs of the city’s tragic fate were revealed. The Crusades can be considered the first meeting between the two by then very different cultures, which had crystalized within the same European tradition. The fourth Crusade, with the capture of the city in 1204 by the Crusaders under the leadership of the Republic of Venice, was the prelude to the complete decline of Byzantine power. The Ottomans sealed the fate of the pillar of Eastern Christendom with the conquest of the city in 1453. Thus the separation of the two worlds became complete, for the pearl of the East became the seat of mighty Islam, which immediately took over and assimilated its symbols of power – with all the pomp and magnificence that went with them.

All the layers of this momentous history come to life in Cornelia Golna’s book, as do the various ethnic groups with their traditions and religions, who at the beginning of the twentieth century lived in relative harmony alongside each other in this metropolis. The reader becomes witness to a cosmopolitan world which in fact finds itself on the verge of its demise, for the small human drama which is the book’s plot is closely interwoven with the great drama of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, whose fate is ultimately sealed with the dethronement of the last sultan, Abdul Hamid II, in 1909, during the revolution of the Young Turks.

The main character in the story is the young Greek girl Theodora Vlachos, the daughter of one of the many Greek families that lived in the city. In that environment of Greek merchants, who together with the Armenians and the Jews formed the empire’s middle class, traditional Greek cultural values were fostered and passed on, albeit in a petty bourgeois manner, which the author describes from time to time with the necessary irony. You could say that the time span of a little more than a year covered in the book is the period in which Theodora crosses the threshold into adulthood and concurrently the period in which the first steps were taken toward the emancipation and modernization of Turkey. Of course, this process could not take place without bringing up life’s great questions, which incite doubts in the young woman. Nor could the modernization of the empire take place without clashes between the wisdom that comes from tradition on the one hand, with its mystical aspects, and rational thinking on the other, with its axiomatic-deductive approach, which takes on a dogmatic value for its proponents.

The representative of the new thinking and thus the champion of the modernization of the empire is to be found in the person of the fanatic, uncompromising Young Turk, Murad. Through the contribution to the plot of the Russian adventurers, the brother and sister Vladimir and Natalya Petrov, as well as the Western intellectuals John Townsend and Nils Pettersson, the cast of characters seems to represent all the forces present in the declining years of the old capital of the Turkish Empire. Cornelia Golna’s Constantinople is not only a city on the dividing line separating the feudal-traditional way of life, in which, thanks to privileges granted by the sultan, there was room for the different cultures and religions, and modernization in the form of the introduction of a secularized, democratic system. It soon becomes clear that the ideal of the nation-state, for which the Young Turks fought, left little room for the rich variety of cultures that had made up Constantinople throughout its long history.

The way in which Cornelia Golna presents these contrasts and seeming paradoxes while never losing sight of the narrative, makes City of Man’s Desire an exceptionally successful historical novel. Written with love and respect, it is a story very sensitive to the human dimension, against the backdrop of a fascinating historical period. Moreover, the author builds up and balances the tension such that after the last page you find yourself somewhat reluctant to have to awaken from its spell.

Reviewer information:

Dorin Perie
Professor of Romanian studies, University of Amsterdam,
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Purchase information for this book: Netherlands website (Bilingual site, English and Dutch) --

Also available via Google Print for $27.50.

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