Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam
Title: Tulip of Istanbul
Author: Iskender Pala
Translator: Ruth Whitehouse
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Tulip of Istanbul was originally written in Turkish in 2009, is a historical novel by Iskender Pala. The translation to English by Ruth Whitehouse and its publication by Niyogi Books in December 2021 has put it within the reach of the larger community of Anglophone readers.
Iskender Pala is a professor of Turkish (Ottoman) Divan Literature, an author, and a columnist. He is a recipient of the Turkish Writer’s Association Prize (1989), The Turkish Language Foundation (1990), The Turkish Writer’s Association Essay Prize (1996), and was honoured with The Presidential Culture and Arts Grand Award in literature in 2013. He has been conferred the title of “The People’s Poet” by popular vote in Usak, Turkey. Ruth Whitehouse is a scholar of Modern Turkish Literature and translator with multiple translations from Turkish.
Tulip of Istanbul , a fictionalised historical romance, is a murder mystery that is woven to highlight the period that followed the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718. The story spans 1729 to 1730. Also known as the Tulip Age, this was a time when the glory of the peaceful period since the 1718 treaty was interrupted by an outbreak of a public revolt that showed resentment to over-indulgence and wastage, leading to social and economic downfall. The book has 66 brief chapters that seek to answer a question that is set as the title of each chapter. In the ‘Preface’, the author claims he wrote the book under the influence of a handwritten anthology of Turkish poetry by an anonymous compiler from an “Auction of Stamp Collections and Old Books” outside Istanbul’s Marmara Hotel. Impressed by the book, he wanted to showcase part of the Ottoman history as a storyteller. Thus was born the One Murder, Sixty-six Questions in Turkish translated as the Tulip of Istanbul.
The ‘Prologue’ reveals that “truth must not remain concealed” and so, the story is told two weeks after the October Revolution that deposed Sultan Ahmet III and slayed his son-in-law Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha of Nevsehir. The book opens with the question, “Is There No Limit to Self-Sacrifice?” The mysterious murder of Naksigul, the bride with heavenly beauty on the first night of the wedding, left the husband, Falco, distraught and deranged. The death of his wife had him thrown to prison as the prime suspect. Naksigul was holding a rare and beautiful purple twin bud tulip when she died. Two lovers were brought together by fate when Falco escaped the jailors. They jointly set out to solve the mystery.
In the story, Pala beautifully alludes to the rich culture and history of Istanbul. He manages to introduce the readers to the ninth-century music therapy called “Farabi”; historical figures who visited the empire of the time, the poet Nedim, the painter Van Mour and dignitary Lady Wortley Montagu; and to the Empire’s culture of maintaining insane asylums, prisons, lodges, and coffee houses. The narrative is interestingly infused with plots that are a story-within-a-story about the social life of the Ottoman Empire, the accounts behind the architectural beauties of the walled city of Istanbul, the picturesque sunsets of the Turkish straits be it by the Bosporus or sea of Marmara, the magnificent domed mosques, and palaces with fashionable gardens.
The action peaks to an important juncture at the house and garden of the most coveted tulip cultivator Hafiz Celebi. In the story, Pala includes mesmerising tales on the nomenclature, symbols, and meanings of the “Tulip” flower, which metaphorically and literally relate to the flourishing business, architectural beauty, and exchange of politics, art, and aesthetics of the Empire with the countries like Iran, Austria, Holland or Crimea. Through the story, Pala aptly accommodates how the Horticulturist community indirectly played a role in the policies and well-being of the state. Tulips are strewn through the story binding it into a poetic whole. Pala mentions the upgrade in information sharing with the coming of the first printing press in Turkey and succeeds in connecting it to the ongoing social unrest and the gruesome revolt that ensued in the Tulip Era. The mystery livens up till the end of the story where love guides and transforms, its own meaning and the seeker.
The language used by the translator in the story aids in understanding the appreciation for elegance and perfection in the art and aesthetics of the Ottoman Empire. Tulip of Istanbul is a potent read with a capacity to broaden the perspective about a culture one knows less about, a perfect springtime read. Changing seasons and social change serve as the backdrop to the dreamlike story filled with intrigues of royal secrets and suspense wreaths with those that pursued power alongside those that pursued love.
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature.
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