Monday, February 07, 2011

Dervishes and elephants

A prophecy. Hoopoes, harem gardens, and spies, oh my! The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas. I llllooovved this book! I ate it up in a day, and that's even after I slowed down at about the halfway mark trying to make it last.

This was an electronic review copy (and one of the cleanest — read: typo-free — proofs I've seen in a long time), but I'm set on acquiring a hard copy to place on the shelf so that my daughter might someday stumble upon it.

It's simply magical! The kind of book that wraps you up and keeps you warm and sends your soul aflutter. Maybe I'm predisposed to liking it. It's set in Stamboul, after all, to my mind one of the most romantic settings on Earth (I must go there one day!), and I seem to be surrounded by talk of Turkey these days. Also, it's about a very charming and clever 8-year-old girl, and as I have one of my own, I happen to think they make for fascinating subjects. It reads like a fairy tale.

The author in his essay "Oskar and Eleonora" explains how this novel is a meditation on the nature of history:

I was most taken, however, by those writers whose work falls into the subgenre I like to call historical fabulism — José Saramago, Günter Grass, Salman Rushdie, and Italo Calvino — storytellers of the old school who add a pinch of magic to the stew of history. I was particularly moved by Saramago's novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which a bored proofreader literally rewrites the history of Lisbon, and by Grass's The Tin Drum, in which a clairvoyant young German boy named Oskar Matzerath disrupts the traditional narrative of World War II by beating on a tin drum. How wonderful, I thought, this idea that a single act, a single person, might change the course of history.

Eleonora is born in inauspicious circumstances. Her mother dies in childbirth while her village is ravaged by the 3rd Division of Tsar Alexander II's Royal Cavalry. Her childhood is mostly a decent one, even though her stepmother doesn't believe in educating her too much (Ruxandra's no ogress, but she has her ideas about how things ought to work). Elenora's good-natured about it though, and sticks to her monthly reading allotment of only one novel (gasp!). At the age of 8, she makes her way to Istanbul (I won't tell you how), where she has a taste of a more privileged lifestyle. But tragedy — and adventure — befalls her again.

It's not exactly a coming-of-age story, although Eleonora does have some growing up to do. The book's a little bit Dickens, a little bit Roald Dahl, every bit enchanting. And the ending is, in my view, perfect.

Late in the novel we meet Fredrick, a journalist, who latches on to Eleonora's story: "This is exactly what the readers want. They want dervishes and elephants. Just look at Kinglake. Look at the Arabian Nights. People want Oriental color."

I suppose that's not true for all people. But it works for me.

I'm curious to see to whom this book is going to be marketed, and what audience for it will finally emerge. It has about it everything of a children's classic: orphaned child confronted with adversity, a special gift, and a prophecy to fulfill. (And the magical tone reminds me specifically of one of my favourites: Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess.)

I found the prose to be fresh and lively:
  • "Hoopoes coated the town like frosting, piped in along the rain gutters of the governor’s mansion and slathered on the gilt dome of the Orthodox church."
  • "drinks in every hand and in every drink a piece of ice reflecting the sun."
  • "a small flight of cormorants swept over the water like marionettes"
  • "As the morning insinuated itself into her room, Eleonora lay curled around herself like a dried tea leaf..."
  • "...he had the aspect of a well-fed rodent and eyes the color of unripe grapes."

A number of reviews are critical of the book's slow pace, that nothing happens, but I don't understand them. I was completely entranced.

Excerpt.
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