by Jason Goodwin (A John McCrae Book, Henry Holt & Co., 1998)
Goodwin piqued my curiosity about the Ottoman Empire with the Investigator Yashim series, not only because I knew nothing about that period and place, but also because I really enjoy the writing in the novels. Unfortunately, this book is rife with endless and confusing sentences, like No border was as convoluted as that of the Ottoman Empire, no garrison since Hadrian built his wall and staffed it with Spaniards so lonely as the Hungarian one; no conflict so ingrown as that between the Sultan and the Shah, whose respective borders, unbeknownst to them, were fixed forever in 1615, with the casus belli so far forgotten in the mists of time that in the eighteenth century Cantemir understood it to be the horrible Persian habit of rubbing their feet with their dry hands first thing in the morning rather than washing them. (pg. 195)
Say what? What is the point here? Is this about Ottomans, Romans, Spaniards, Hungarians, or Persians? Where was the editor when we so sorely needed him or her? The book is full of sentences like these. By the time you get to the end of one, you’ve forgotten what the beginning was about. Here is another one: The call of the muezzin sounded over Eger and Sarajevo and Istanbul; over Sofia and Bursa and Mosul; but Hungary was the pounding of hooves; Arabia, the wind; Epirus, shots in the street; Ragusa, the running of oars through a galley port; the Balkans, the echo of a loosened stone on a hillside; Attica, the drone of bees; Sarajevo, the groan of a camel; Mecca, the murmuring of the faithful at prayer; Gallipoli, the wingbeats of storks in flight; the Danube, the crash of rocks; the plains of Konya, the skirl of symbals; the Rhodopes, the wail of pipes; Athos, male chants; Salonica, the lamentations of Jewesses at a funeral; Serbia, the grunting of pigs in oak woods; Ankara, the bleating of goats in the herbage; all highlands, the clanking of sheep bells; all lowlands, the snorting of buffalo; all palaces, the growls of a panther; every city, the yelping of dogs. (pgs. 200-201) This would make a good poem, but I am not convinced that I know more about the Ottoman Empire after reading it. Surely there were more sounds in Attica than the droning of bees.
Goodwin tends to drop names his reader is unlikely to know, like Cantemir in this case. (He does identify him elsewhere, but his sources are so plentiful that one forgets from chapter to chapter who they are.) He is also very enamoured of quotations (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is one of his favorites), but he does not always explain why we should believe them. Many of his sources were prone to stereotyping (or else he himself is), so we hear a lot about how the Albanians were this way, the Greeks were that way, and the Jews some other way–and of course the Ottomans, who he takes pains to emphasize were of many different cultures and ethnicities, are described in sweeping generalities. Instead of saying “X says that the farmers of Bulgaria were invariably respectful,” Goodwin writes, “The farmers of Bulgaria were invariably respectful.” (pg. 187) Sometimes paragraphs are so stuffed with quotations there is little else. I found myself so overwhelmed with details that I could not discern the main ideas. This was not improved by the book’s organization by theme rather than chronologically (and the fact that the Sultans are often similarly called Mehmet/Mohammed, Bayezid, Murad, Selim, Suleyman or Achmet did not help!), and the fact that this was an Empire that lasted 600 years!
Goodwin has provided a glossary of (mostly) Turkish terms (which do not appear in italics in the text), but he has a bad habit of throwing in archaic English or historical words many readers are unlikely to know, like gobbets (of mud), bastinadoed, and charnelhouse, and also what appears to be British slang unintelligible to an American reader. Sometimes he intersperses foreign phrases or sentences which he does not bother to translate for the hapless monolingual reader. In a word: Goodwin assumes a lot.
However, life’s too short to read bad books, and although this one was annoying at times and confusing at others (the adjective Byzantine kept coming to mind), I finished it because it was also very interesting. Perhaps if my prior knowledge of the Ottomans had been greater, I would have found the book clearer; there is so much here, in such a profusion of detail, that it is overwhelming for a novice. But I learned a great deal that I did not know before; and isn’t this why we read?