“What are you, some kind of aristocratic character escaped from a romantic novel?” asks the comely professor of the narrator/protagonist, who fits this description so perfectly. He also may or may not be The Sultan of Byzantium of Selçuk Altun’s absorbing novel. The longest-lasting and most satisfying intrigue is that readers never learn the name of the narrator, a dashing economics professor, until the book’s conclusion. How it is revealed, resolving many a loose end, is well worth the journey getting there.
Like the double history reflected in the title, Altun’s book is slightly hard to define, immediately separating it from ambitious bestsellers by authors (that means you, Dan Brown) that settle for easy answers that won’t scare off readers. What makes The Sultan of Byzantium worthwhile is that those who prefer one genre over another will admire how they fit together in chapters sequentially named after characters of the Greek alphabet. They will also have fun seeing how the author slyly inserts himself into the periphery of the narrative.
Sultan is first and most definitely a carefully executed mystery. The 33-year-old Turkish-American narrator could be the heir to Constantine XI, giving him legitimate claim to the lost Byzantine Empire (476 AD-1453). He certainly has qualifications that emperors, empresses, and their modern-day equivalents should strive for—he is educated, compassionate, and well-mannered; thinks before speaking or acting; and is a true reader of poetry, literature, and history—but seldom do. That is why empires crumble. Power and the wealth that goes with it are attractive to this man for different reasons:
I would have a glass building built in the shape of a book in the city center. I could establish the greatest library in the world for dictionaries and poetry. At night a laser show on the front of the building would project, in rotation, the letters of all the alphabets of the world. On another wall a new poem would be illuminated every night. The building would be my shield from the world’s ugliness, and also my grave.
His concern for children, from bringing home the starving child who becomes his adopted sister Hayal to his encounter with a handicapped youngster who acts as his guide in the Ihlara Valley, is documented over and over again.
Does he have any weaknesses? High-end prostitutes; preferably two at a time.
Instead of genetics resolving his birthright, he must complete a series of tests created by a secret society called Nomo that guards Constantine’s legacy. The quest takes him around the world, thus qualifying Sultan as a sophisticated travelogue. The bibliophile revels in this aspect of his undertaking, which leads him to research facilities such as Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks with its collections of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art. To the narrator, these two styles that share violent histories appear on the verge of war themselves with “busts challenging the masks and vice versa.” He describes the mansion’s “well-tended gardens” where “birds sang carefully,” delightfully re-creating with words Stravinsky’s cheery same-named Concerto in E Flat (commissioned by the Blisses who lived and collected art at Dumbarton Oaks).
“In my childhood fantasy all of the towers of the world were cousins,” the narrator recollects. More than anything else, The Sultan of Byzantium is a novel about history. Pages are given over to the art, architecture and rulers of The Byzantine Empire. Altun and his narrator aren’t looking to test their readers. Rather, this information inserted in the hope of re-evaluation. The Crusades, particularly the Fourth (1202 - 1261), were disastrous for the Byzantines. A peaceful man in heart and soul, the narrator calls out the sackers of Constantinople for being “hooligans.”
This moral outrage carries into Venice, its sinking and pollution explained as “paying for its past sins.” The lover of poetry and literature has none for the city that inspired so much. However, his rage at the Four Horses atop San Marco (sieged during the Sack of Constantinople) soon softens upon closer inspection: “I had an odd feeling, here before the most famous horses in the world. It was like running into some of one’s own people now forced to work in an international circus. Their innocent looks hurt my heart. They seemed to know who I was, and expect me to take them home.”
He even finds compassion for the natives, whose city is overrun with tourists. “Venetians never take off their masks. They laugh secretly at the tourists who think they wear them only at carnival,” he observes. Tourists are regarded throughout Sultan as being no better than the Crusaders.
The last historic observation—and evidence—is offered by the narrator’s dead American father. He too was a professor . . . and an intelligence officer. His notes are on the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s most famous, multifaceted landmark:
Each of its mosaic mazes possesses a rich and unique combination of religion and art. In them I saw everything: a fairy-tale palace, a time tunnel, a lighthouse, an aquarium, a caravanserai, a virtual hot springs, a suburb of heaven, a purgatory, an art studio. . . . If visitors from another planet came to earth in some future millennium, it would be Haghia Sophia that would present them with the common message of humanity . . .
This way of seeing has served his son well, and there is no reason to think it won’t in the future. To find out if that future includes being named the Sultan of Byzantium, you’ll need to pick up a copy of this absorbing novel yourself.