A year after graduating college, the author of The Oracle of Stamboul, Michael David Lukas found himself, on scholarship, studying in Tunisia. The United States had just invaded Iraq and Lukas found himself juggling worried relatives and angry Arabs as he studied Arabic, toured the region, and read.
In an essay for Harper, he wrote, "I retreated into my trunk of books, plowing through literary classics. ...I was particularly moved by Saramago’s novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which a bored proofreader literally rewrites the history of Lisbon, and by Grass’s The Tin Drum, in which a clairvoyant young German boy named Oskar Matzerath disrupts the traditional narrative of World War II by beating on a tin drum. How wonderful, I thought, this idea that a single act, a single person, might change the course of history.
It was soon after I finished The Tin Drum, on a run through the undeveloped outskirts of Tunis, that Eleonora Cohen, the protagonist of my yet unwritten novel, first came to me...."
That 'yet unwritten novel' became The Oracle of Stamboul, an historical and magical novel that encapsulates the same elements that Lukas sought within the authors/stories in his "trunk." There are aspects of realism, magical realism, and historical fiction woven into a fine and fluid tapestry - a story of a young girl with extraordinary gifts who might potentially be able to change history.
The pace of the book is never fast. It's almost melodic - as if we're being eased into a hypnotic journey - as events unfold the characters and the settings become more vibrant and realistic (at times, almost overly descriptive - definitely rich). He does well to wrap us in the details of each setting, portraying wonderfully developed, convincing characters.
We follow the main character, Eleanora, throughout the story:
Raised by her doting father, Yakob, a carpet merchant, and her stern, resentful stepmother, Ruxandra, Eleonora spends her early years daydreaming and doing housework—until the moment she teaches herself to read, and her father recognizes that she is an extraordinarily gifted child, a prodigy.
Lukas ends his essay for Harper by saying, "[i]t is, I hope, an enjoyable read and a mostly accurate picture of the Ottoman capital in its last days. It is also, I would like to think, something more—a meditation of sorts on the nature of history. ...I tried to introduce the possibility that Eleonora could, through her advice to the Sultan, indeed, through her very presence in the world, push back against the tides of history and set the world right again on its axis. Whether she fulfilled the prophecy or not, I wanted to suggest the possibility of an alternate history, a history in which the chasm between east and west doesn’t seem so wide. I wanted to suggest a world in which Europe and Asia are no more than a ferry ride apart, a world in which the presence of one remarkable person can shift the balance."
When Yakob sets off by boat for Stamboul on business, eight-year-old Eleonora, unable to bear the separation, stows away in one of his trunks. On the shores of the Bosporus, in the house of her father's business partner, Moncef Bey, a new life awaits. Books, backgammon, beautiful dresses and shoes, markets swarming with color and life—the imperial capital overflows with elegance, and mystery. For in the narrow streets of Stamboul—a city at the crossroads of the world—intrigue and gossip are currency, and people are not always what they seem. Eleonora's tutor, an American minister and educator, may be a spy. The kindly though elusive Moncef Bey has a past history of secret societies and political maneuvering. And what is to be made of the eccentric, charming Sultan Abdulhamid II himself, beleaguered by friend and foe alike as his unwieldy, multiethnic empire crumbles? [from the product description]
You can read more about Michael David Lukas and his work at his Web site.
This is Lukas' debut novel. The number of imprints was not announced. Signed first editions can be ordered through Book Passage (for $24.99 + shipping).
The Oracle of Stamboul
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Harper (February 8, 2011)
List Price: $24.99
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Labels: Historical Fiction, Istanbul, magical realism, Michael David Lukas, The Oracle of Stamboul, YA