“Tulip of Istanbul” by İskender Pala

An audience with Sultan Ahmet III (Jean Baptiste Vanmour ca 1727-30, Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons) An audience with Sultan Ahmet III (Jean Baptiste Vanmour ca 1727-30, Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons)

The conceit of Tulip of Istanbul is that it was “found” as an 18th-century handwritten Ottoman manuscript at a stamp and rare book auction. The arrival of the novel itself is almost as serendipitous: originally published in Turkish in 2009 and then in English in 2015 (also curiously published in Turkey), it is now available to a perhaps wider English-language audience via India’s Niyogi Books. 

Set over a few months in 1730, a momentous year in the history of Istanbul, Tulip of Istanbul is structured as a murder mystery. Falco wakes up with his newlywed bride Nakşıgül dismembered. He is dragged away, charged with the crime. He escapes and embarks on a quest to find out what happened. There are beatings, disguises, villains, assassins, hidden motives, skullduggery and all the other sorts of things one might expect in a story of this kind. Straightfoward enough on the face of it, but author İskender Pala has two other things going on: the murder mystery is integrated into the story of the revolt of 1730 in which Sultan Ahmet III was deposed. The Sultan himself, along with Grand Vizier İbrahim Pasha (also the Sultan’s son-in-law) are among the dozen or so protagonists in a book that is almost as busy and populous as Istanbul itself.

Pala has also set his story at the end of the so-called “Tulip Era”, a period of relative peace following the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718 which coincided with a tulip craze in Istanbul. A focal point in the story is the house and garden of Hafız Çelebi, one of Istanbul’s premier tulip growers. But the tulip in the period’s name is metaphorical as well as literal: it was a time of flowering of architecture and the arts. The poet Nedim, the painter Van Mour and visiting dignitary Lady Wortley Montagu, historical figures all, make an appearance in the book, as does Turkey’s first printing press which was set up at the time. It is this period of refinement tinged with undercurrents of social resentment leading to a bloody revolt that Pala endeavors, with considerable success, to evoke.

 

Tulip of Istanbul , Iskender Pala, Ruth Whitehouse (trans) (Niyogi, December 2021)
Tulip of Istanbul, Iskender Pala, Ruth Whitehouse (trans) (Niyogi, December 2021)

Falco escapes from his jailers. Despite his best efforts to focus on finding his bride’s murderer and keeping his head down—he’s still a wanted man—he finds himself drawn into the political machinations of the time. This might be because it soon turns out he’s also a hitherto unknown Prince and potential claimant to the throne.

The book is structured as 66 short chapters, each titled with a question. (Why 66? Because “the word lale, meaning tulip, represents the number sixty-six in the ancient abjad writing system”: the book is full of touches like this.) The chapters switch between points of view: the result is choppy but accommodates a considerable amount of coming and going, changes of scene and tone. The book moves at a considerable clip.

The novel’s strengths are more atmosphere than plot or characterization. The characters, while appealing (or villainous) enough, show little in the way of ambiguity or development; there are rather a lot of friendships for life. Some characters and situations have backstories which seem a bit contrived, unnecessarily so. The long diversions into culture and history, however, while somewhat distracting from the plot, are rather interesting. Translator Ruth Whitehouse has managed to translate the considerable amount of poetry—often taking the form of witty dialogue—complete with rhymes.

In its depiction of the ins and outs of Ottoman Istanbul, a young protagonist finding himself in the corridors of power, its occasionally picaresque tone and easy style, Tulip of Istanbul can feel reminiscent of Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice; in it use of multiple short chapters each from a different point of view, as well as in its integration of art and culture with a murder mystery, it resembles Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red; in its multiple relationship-based storylines, there’s a touch of Ahmet Altan. Pala’s 1730-era Ottoman Istanbul is exotic, but then it’s probably pretty exotic for modern-day Turks as well.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.