“Like a Sword Wound” by Ahmet Altan

Like a Sword Wound, Ahmet Altan, Brendan Freely (trans), Yelda Türedi (trans) (Europa Editions. October 2018) Like a Sword Wound, Ahmet Altan, Brendan Freely (trans), Yelda Türedi (trans) (Europa Editions. October 2018)

Although set in an exotic late-Ottoman Istanbul, a city of harems, dervishes, veils and fezzes, Ahmet Altan’s Like a Sword Wound nevertheless reads like a familiar and recognizable Western European period classic.

The binary star around which the other protagonists orbit is the beautiful and over-sexed Mehpare Hanım and her first husband, the holy Sheikh Yusuf Efendi, the leader of a prominent tekke, or monastery of dervishes.


Yesterday he’d seen the bride for the first time, and had confirmed with his own eyes the legend about the beauty of Customs Director Tevfik Bey’s seventeen-year-old daughter… Mehpare Hanım had lifted her veil and revealed her face… Sheikh Efendi was frightened; such beauty was not a good omen.


The marriage doesn’t last, and Mehpare soon remarries with Hüseyin Hikmet Bey, the well-to-do and Europeanized son of Reşit Pasha, personal physician and a confidant of Sultan Abdulhamid II, and Mihrişah Sultan, an Ottoman princess related to the Khedive of Egypt, now estranged from Reşit Pasha and living in Paris. Mihrişah is an enviable beauty in her own right, a source of conflict with her daughter-in-law.

While Mehpare is a source of passionate instability, the flame around which numerous moths flutter, the Sheikh is an island of calm, and as such attracts everyone from renegade soldiers to Mihrişah Sultan herself. Neither father Reşit Pasha nor son Hikmet Bey can keep up with their wives’ demands, amorous or otherwise; even menages-à-trois with various French governesses cannot stave off Mehpare Hanım’s sexual ennui indefinitely. Hikmet Bey retreats into (relatively passive, it must be said) revolutionary sympathies.


The novel is at one level a musing on the nature and power of love, attraction and sexuality and the difference between them: its title derives from an entry in Hikmet’s diary: “True love is like a sword wound, and even when the wound heals a deep scar remains.”

But Like a Sword Wound is also a story of imperial and social decay, of the fin-de-siècle Empire mired in the past and unready for the future. The story opens as


The Ottoman Empire went to sleep at the turn of the twentieth century. Because they were using a different calendar, the Ottoman Empire spent a quiet, ordinary night while European capitals celebrated their entry into a new century, though balls were held at a few foreign embassies in Pera and people danced until morning.


Several historical personages, Sultan Abdulhamid II—portrayed as paranoid, corrupt and incompetent—Mustafa Kamal and the “young Turk” Enver Bey among them, make their appearance, as do a a number of actual historical events, such as the Bulgarian anarchist bombings in Salonika (now Thessaloniki), and questions of ethnicity and nationality that still haunt the regions of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire.

The author, himself a journalist, uses journalistic pacing in his descriptions of events and the febrile atmosphere:


The big roundup began the following morning, and a number of pashas and hundreds of officers were picked up from their homes and brought to Balmumcu barracks; in town, whispers of “they’ve caught the plotters, and some of them will be hanged” began to spread, and the fear that lurked beneath Istanbul like a monster and emerged from time to time began to stalk about like an epidemic. Civilians were arrested as well, those who had been denounced, and everyone was denouncing their enemies as “Fuat Pasha’s loyal followers.”


Readers who would find here a reference to relatively recent events (in which the author himself was caught up and imprisoned) would be mistaken, for the novel was originally published 20 years ago.


The first novel of a four-volume set—about which little only the most general information is available—Like a Sword Wound stands alone, except for curious and in this single volume, somewhat awkward, framing in which the story is nominally told via Osman, a modern character, in communication with relatives from his past. This may prove more significant in later volumes; in this book, it seems a superfluous device, but thankfully hardly intrudes.

The book’s blurb compares it to War and Peace, presumably for its combination of family drama set against a background of political turmoil in what will—once all four volumes are out—be a work of considerable length, but in its evocation of fin de l’empire social and political oppressiveness, it seems to echo other books and authors, while in its wry irony and sarcasm, Osman’s “conversing with the dead”, the almost palpable personality of Istanbul itself, it as if the novel is winking at magic realism.

Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi’s translation manages to be both fluently colloquial while maintaining a period tone.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.