The Ottoman Cage
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 4, 2009
I’ve been a bit under the weather lately – the victim of too many holiday sweets, perhaps, or suppressed endorphin levels due to the horrifying coverage of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. In any case, feeling unwell made the prospect of my flights back to New York less than delightful. Or, it would have had I not had the perfect antidote: a good book.
I am an unabashed Ottomanist – I think that the Ottoman Empire was – for most of its history – a rich space in which multiple ethnicities, languages, religions, and historic influences coexisted and complemented one another. And as an Ottomanist, I am much less interested in Turkey – which seems to me like any other flat, aggressively homogeneous nation-state. I understand perfectly well why Ataturk refocused energies on Turkey – it provided a much-needed fresh start and a chance to break away from the canker that the dying Empire had become – but Turkey doesn’t thrill my heart the way its predecessor does.
So I was prepared not to be that interested in the contemporary part of The Ottoman Cage, the Barbara Nadel mystery I had packed in my carry-on. But I was interested – and more than interested, fascinated. Her characters include middle-class Muslim Turks, upper-class (and former Ottoman aristocrat) Muslim Turks, middle- and upper-class Armenians, and Jews. They are all bound together in some way by the mysterious killing of a young boy, but their interactions together – their friendships and their suspicions – are heavily conditioned by their awareness of one another’s ethnic, religious, and class positions. And all of those have much to do with Turkey’s Ottoman history – a history that apparently still lives on in the behaviors and expectations of Istanbulis today.
The actual mystery was good, too – but what I really loved was the interaction and the depth of the characters. Barbara Nadel has been compared to Donna Leon, one of my aunt’s favorite mystery writers, and the two women do share a tremendous ability to write texture: to bring in the city and its history as a major part of the story-line, and to develop characters who live beyond the page.