Peter Constantine is one of the most prominent—and diverse—contemporary translators. He has published English translations from Russian, German, French, Italian, Modern and Ancient Greek, Albanian, Dutch and Slovene, winning numerous awards for his translations of Machiavelli, Babel, and Thomas Mann. It’s only now that he’s come out with a novel, The Purchased Bride, based on the story of how his paternal grandparents met. It comes as no surprise then that language is an important part of this story.
Like Constantine’s grandparents, his novel begins with the meeting between an older Turkish man in Constantinople who already has a number of wives and a fifteen year-old Greek teenager from the Caucasus. Maria, the teen, is about to be inspected by her future husband and first has to be approved by her husband’s most senior wife, Zekiyé. But this meeting barely makes a mark in the novel’s overall story and instead Constantine focuses on how Maria leaves her home in the Caucasus after her village is burned by Russian bandits.
Maria comes from a Greek family with a long lineage in the Caucasus, a remnant from the Byzantine Empire. As Maria’s father Kostis ruminates, chaos plagues the area and his village is caught in the middle.
The whole Caucasus, with all its tribes and peoples, is up in arms: Tatars and Armenians fighting one another, Muslims and Christians and Mountain Jews pitched against each other by the Russians. And we Greeks, Kostis thinks, who have lived in the Caucasus since the days of Noah, are caught in the middle, shot at and plundered by all sides.
When Maria’s village is set on fire, she and her parents flee. Her two brothers are working on tea plantations north of their home, but the unrest makes it impossible for the rest of the family to head that way. Instead, they head south, towards Constantinople.
Maria has a couple of things going for her: her beauty and her ability to read. A medicine woman who goes by the name of Black Melpo had taken Maria under her wing and taught her how to find medicinal remedies from nature. The village priest and Black Melpo were the only literate people around, but the latter taught Maria the Greek alphabet when no one was watching. Her pronunciation is special to her village.
The Greek spoken in the far-flung Caucasian villages, which have been cut off from each other for many centuries, has splintered into almost entirely different languages.
After Maria and the other villagers flee, they learn of a wealthy Turkish man in Constantinople who is looking for a new wife and possibly some servants. A representative is sent to find a Greek teenager around the age of fifteen or sixteen, someone who hasn’t already formed strong opinions and is still impressionable. While the villagers think this is a form of slavery, the village priest knows that someone like Maria would have a better life married to a man with multiple wives than in the village or on the run. And her parents would fare better with the gold they’d get in exchange for their daughter. Besides, whatever dowry they had saved for Maria was lost when they fled their village after it was torched by the insurgents. Although Maria’s parents know their daughter will need to give up her Christian faith to marry a Muslim man, it’s a price they are willing to pay.
The reality—a cold reality—is that a man representing a certain gentlemen in far-off Constantinople is going to bring salvation. Though money will be proffered, it is not a question of buying or selling girls. In the Greek settlements of the Caucasian mountains, and in every Greek village by the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, a girl has to have a dowry if she is to be married off into another family, into a life of drudgery. She is then the property of her husband, the slave of her mother-in-law, and the servant of his jealous sisters and sisters-in-law. Hers is then a life of hard labor through all the day and into the late hours, when the sheep are sent out for night-grazing.
The Ottoman Empire is falling apart and there is violence all around. Once Maria reaches the Turkish border, she must bid her family farewell. She continues on with the village priest, who carries her papers and serves as her guardian. Maria needs to arrive in Constantinople untouched or else she won’t be suitable for marriage anymore.
It’s only at the very end of the book that Constantine brings the story back to the household in Constantinople where people drop into French from time to time and Maria meets the first wife, Zekiyé. It’s there that Maria learns that she’s not alone after all. Every one of the wives and concubines comes from the Caucasus and can speak the same languages as Maria. Home, as she realizes, comes in many forms.
Constantine is an entertaining storyteller with an eye to detail that serves him well as both a translator and a novelist.