The Sultan of Byzantium
An interesting read over Christmas. The Sultan of Byzantium by Selcuk Altun. It’s the first time in quite a while that I’ve read a foreign language text translated into English, and so I had forgotten to be prepared for the usual ‘things don’t always carry over into a different language well’ situation. Still, I soon overcame that issue.
The Sultan of Byzantium is hard to categorise. Some might throw it into the same camp as people like Dan Brown, Simon Toyne or Chris Kuzneski, though it would be a shoe-horned fit, I think. It is an interesting enough story, though for me its value is in its less central facets, to which I will turn shortly.
Essentially, it is the tale of a half-American, half-Turkish, well-educated and largely secular man who is visited by a secretive and powerful group claiming to be the protectors of the line of the last Byzantine emperor. These strange folk explain that our hero is the last of the line of the Palaeologus dynasty and that his ancestor, Constantine XI, upon losing Constantinople to the Turk, had written a list of folk upon whom he sought revenge. The protagonist will have to undergo a series of tests to prove his worthiness and, if he succeeds, he will be made ’emperor in exile’ and will be given the last item on the revenge list to tackle, after which the extremely wealthy secretive organisation will be his to do with as he wishes.
Cue a treasure hunt across the Byzantine world, with the hero finding a purple square that will lead him to the next place in his quest.
What this books is perhaps missing is a sense of threat that comes with the Dan Browns, Simon Toynes and Christ Kuzneskis. Most of the novel comes across as a happy and relaxed exploration of Byzantium, mixed with interesting observations and personal discoveries and reminiscences. Then, towards the end, a sense of threat suddenly appears, becomes slightly less nebulous and is quickly and efficiently dealt with with no real heart-stopping moment. That being said, there is certainly still intrigue and a little suspense to the tale.
Another thing that sat oddly with me in the books was the occasional reference by the author to himself as a minor supporting character. I suppose there’s nothing really wrong with the idea, but it just seemed a little strange.
But the value of this tale comes in other directions for me. Firstly, if you’re not a lover of Istanbul and Byzantium, don’t bother. The thriller side of the story will not be enough to retain your interest, I suspect. But for those like me, who have a deep love of Istanbul and fascination with Byzantium, I would heartily recommend it. The descriptions of ancient Istanbul and Byzantium are livid, evocative and enchanting and will whisk you straight to them. I can perfectly picture almost every site mentioned in the text, and his descriptions are almost exactly as I remember them.
Additionally, this is a viewpoint that you will rarely get to experience. A secular Turk with Euro-American leanings, a superstitious, devout Islamic grandmother, a lover of fine things and a tendecy to mistrust his own feelings such that he indulges in the company of prostitutes to satisfy. This is a story written by a Turk about a Turko-Greek-American, and the cultural viewpoint is fascinating and telling in odd ways.
I learned things. I love Byzantium and Istanbul and there were few points in the story that I didn’t already know, but perhaps two or three times, Altun produced a little fact or snippet that truly interested and educated me. Fascinating.
Then there is the imagery and use of language. All I can say is that in his native language, Altun must be poetic to read. Because even in translation, he creates some stunning images and some beautifully-crafted prose. There are moments that I have taken to my heart and phrases that will stay with me. The descriptions of Galata – a place that I have previously found to be over-busy, over-modern and cluttered and fraught – have made me see a new side of it, and the next time I visit, I will view the place through new eyes.
How do I summarise? The Sultan of Byzantium is a fairly specialised read. But if you love the exotic world of Istanbul and Byzantium, it is well worth investing in for a quick, absorbing read.