“Dying is Easier than Loving” by Ahmet Altan

Dying is Easier than Loving, Ahmet Altan, Brendan Freely (trans) (Europa, February 2023) Dying is Easier than Loving, Ahmet Altan, Brendan Freely (trans) (Europa, February 2023)

While the first two books in Ahmet Altan’s “Ottoman Quartet”, Like a Sword Wound and Love in the Days of Rebellion, could be read as stand-alone novels, the third installment, Dying is Easier than Loving, requires familiarity with the story that came before.

Although the book opens in late 1912, only three years after the close of Love in the Days of Rebellion in 1909, it moves on to a new generation of protagonists centering on an emotionally complex love affair between Nizam, the son of Hikmet Bey and Mehpare Hanım and the granddaughter of Ottoman princess Mihrişah Sultan, and Anya, a mysterious Russian pianist, which blossoms in the shadow of the disastrous First Balkan War and Enver’s coup.


Dying is Easier than Loving, more than the previous volumes, illustrates the comparison that has been made between the Quartet and War and Peace. The advance of Bulgarians menaces the capital of Istanbul—the front lines are hardly further out than what are now suburbs—while individuals in the city are consumed with politics and affairs of the heart while continuing to entertain, gamble and plot. War hero Ragıp Bey is at the front, dealing with his confused feelings about the beautiful and exotic Dilara Hanım (the central affair of Love in the Days of Rebellion): it is to Ragıp Bey that Altan refers in one of his epigrammatic opening sentences, “Why would a person carry around a letter his whole life if he was never in his life going to read it?”

Nizam is newly arrived from Paris, exiled perhaps, after a row with Mihrişah Sultan who lives there in regal splendor.


When the ship rounded the point and the city emerged from behind the fog, Nizam looked at the city … as if he was looking at a beautiful woman he knew from the start he was going to abandon, keenly, but with the secret disdain of knowing that she would have no place in his life.


The aristocratic Nizam is fluent in French, feckless, uninterested and noncommittal:


The handsome face that combined his mother’s beauty with his father’s nobility and the likeableness that came from the selfish and nonchalant geniality in his soul gave Nizam an appeal that drew every type of woman to him.


His attraction and commitment to Anya surprises himself as much as it does everyone else. Nothing in this story is simple, however. Nizam is true to Anya in his fashion, as Cole Porter might have it—there’s a Greek girl in a brothel—while Ragıp and Dilara each spend most waking hours obsessed with the other while assiduously avoiding contact. Dying, whether from cholera or war, is indeed much easier than loving. In again Tolstoyan fashion, these emotionally complicated relationships are contrasted with domestic bliss, here the marriage of Nizam’s half-sister Rukiye and ministry clerk Tevfik Bey.

Dying is Easier than Loving remains an evocation of great literature of the past: Altan’s descriptions are evocative, atmospheric and lush; the characters indulge in philosophical digressions; real historical figures have cameos while the plot turns on actual events. Reading it feels a bit like a guilty pleasure.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.