Ahmet Altan is something of a master of the evocative opening line, brief this time: “Some nights he woke to the footsteps of the ants crawling across the Persian carpet.” Although Love in the Days of Rebellion, the second installment in Ahmet Altan’s “Ottoman Quartet”, is a sequel to Like a Sword Wound, it can also be read alone.
It’s 1909 and the Ottoman Empire is drawing to its close. The story itself opens with Hüseyin Hikmet Bey recovering from attempted suicide in the French Hospital in Istanbul. Hikmet Bey, the affluent and Europeanized son of Reşit Pasha, confidant of Sultan Abdulhamid II, was driven to this by his beautiful wife Mehpare Hanım running off with Constantine, a Greek from Salonica. Istanbul, meanwhile, is on the verge of upheaval: an Islamist “coup” is brewing to restore the Sultan to the absolute rule he had been forced to relinquish a few months previously. Ragıp Bey is an officer in the Ottoman Army pledged to counter this. With this turmoil as a backdrop, several interrelated love affairs play out: some bloom and others die.
Despite the political turmoil, the novel proceeds at a languid pace—at 500 pages, it is half again as long as the first volume. There is, as before, a cast of characters of Tolstoyan proportions (the books have been compared to War & Peace) to the extent that the novel is prefaced with a list of them. Most are related to one another. In Altan’s world, love comes with loss, happiness is the cause of unhappiness, divorce can yield friendship, honor and conviction are conjoined with infidelity, error and uncertainty; there are always choices to be made.
Hikmet Bey centers this volume: as he recovers from the wound to his body, heart—and, it must be said, amour-propre—he finds new love twice, but irreconcilably split in two, as he is himself split in two. Hikmet, much like the entire country, is caught between looking outward and inward, forward and back. The only character who seems to have reconciled the disparate and diverging strands is, unexpectedly, Sheikh Yusuf Efendi, the leader of a prominent tekke, a monastery of dervishes. Sheikh Efendi was Mehpare Hanım’s first husband and Ragıp Bey’s father-in-law (yes, it’s complicated).
They are joined in supporting roles by Sultan Abdulhamid II, fully aware that his reign—and probably the Empire—are winding down, Reşit Pasha, Mihrişah Sultan (Hikmet Bey’s mother, a beautiful Ottoman princess, recently returned from exile in Paris and who refers to the Sutan as that “geezer”) and Dilara Hanım, the Polish-born widow of a wealthy Ottoman pasha, who turns the taciturn Ragıp Bey’s life upside down after he rescues her from a mugging.
The other character is late-Ottoman Istanbul itself: from Hagia Sophia “surrounded by thousands of fezzes that rippled like a ruby-red sea” to roads that smell “of wet soil and oregano”; how, in the snow, “the city had fallen into a silent, innocent sleep; streets, houses and rooftops were covered in white”, how the snow on “the headquarters buildings took on a leaden color as it reflected the grey of the sky”.
“The Ottoman Quartet” is not just set in an earlier epoch, but also seems very much of that epoch or its aftermath. In its fin de l’empire weariness, it recalls such novels as Embers by the Hungarian Sandor Marai or The Girl from the Golden Horn by Kurban Said. The prose, in a sparkling translation by Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi, is often glorious, as here when Ragıp Bey first get a close look at Dilara Hanım after she has offered him in her carriage:
Her braided hair was the color of the shiny horse-chestnuts that used to fall into the garden and emerge from their thorny green pods when he was a child. Her face was illuminated by a strange light that set her apart from everything around her, as if someone was shining a light on her from some hidden corner; she was wearing neither blush nor eye-liner, this natural look, as if she’d just washed her face with lots of fresh water, sheltered an innocence that was at odds with her disdain as well as a lust that was at odds with her innocence. Her eyes, under eyebrows that were a little uneven at the ends and gave her face a mocking expression, bulged a bit in a way that reminded him of paintings of the Virgin Mary he’d seen in Germany, under her perfect, Slavic looking nose were small but fleshy lips that looked as if they’d been drawn by hand; it was difficult to decide whether her face was beautiful or not, but one still wanted to look at it.
But Altan can be laconic as well as expansive. Streets are “swept by an ash-colored wind” and sleep can be “as dark and sticky as mud”.
Love in the Days of Rebellion is atmospheric, hypnotic, inevitable and sad, or perhaps triste, as Hikmet Bey would undoubtedly have put it. While it can be read on its own, the reader is likely to be drawn to the first volume, so one might as well start there.