City caught between reason and mystique

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul – the city’s name was changed time and again, churches were converted into mosques and later still into museums. But something of its essence remained unchanged. The city was and is the end of Europe and the beginning of the Orient, the object of desire of Eastern Christendom and Islam, lying on the fault line between reason and mysticism. It has enthralled Westerners to the point of ecstasy but filled them too with fear. The debate about Turkey’s entrance into the European Union once more highlights the fact that Western Europe’s relationship with the city has remained one of tension, doubt, and fear.
Western Europe has never been able to ignore the city. It has weighed heavily on the scales of European history, and will continue to be crucial for a future Europe. Knowledge of the world that exists behind its modern facade is vital. Sometimes an impressive historical novel says more than non-fiction. This is the case with City of Man’s Desire – A novel of Constantinople, the literary debut of Cornelia Golna, a classicist of Greek-Romanian origin who grew up in the United States and resides in the Netherlands. Golna takes the reader to a world that no longer exists, but which is crucial for an understanding of Turkey and the Balkans of today. The book leaves the mystery of the city completely intact, but is highly illuminating.
Golna places her novel in the most important period in Constantinople’s recent history, the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. The Ottoman Empire is in serious decay. In 1908, the Young Turks – one of whom was Atatürk – seize power with the aim of transforming the sultan’s immense, multi-cultural empire into a modern European state. Of all the fault lines treated in City of Man’s Desire, the one separating tradition from modernity and nationalism is the most significant.
The book succeeds on all fronts. It is rich in imagery, evokes the atmosphere beautifully, and it is also an exciting story about doomed love in a turbulent time. But perhaps its greatest strength lies in its characters, almost all of whom symbolize an attitude, a tradition, or a culture. The young Turkish revolutionary Murad is a relentless Ottoman Robespierre. The Western intellectuals Nils Petterson and John Townsend represent the contradictory ways in which the West has always looked upon the city; the first stands for cool reason, the second for naive-lyrical awe. When from the modernist corner it is put to Townsend that a Socrates could never have existed in the top-heavy, buzzing Byzantine climate of Constantinople, he replies: “Starkness is no substitute for a garden grown wild and profuse.”
Olaf Tempelman
De Volkskrant, December 10, 2004

I recommand it to anyone

After I started reading City of Man's Desire, I could hardly put it down. When I finished the book, I went around all day thinking about it, for this is a novel that makes a lasting impression! I can only concur with those who praised the book for its beautiful atmospheric descriptions (see, e.g., Olaf Tempelman's review). But, to be able to write such a wonderful book, much more is needed of course than a - in itself admirable - talent for evoking atmosphere in the description of certain moments. The historical background too must be accurately depicted, and this requires scientific research. Everything in Cornelia Golna's account seems to me solid and reliable. To remind myself of which stage of the Young Turk revolution the story dealt with, I again picked up, among other source books, Philip Mansel's Constantinople. And everything turned out to correspond perfectly. To my mind it was almost as if the naked showcase mannequin described by Mansel in his factual report on page 253, was "clothed" by Cornelia Golna in the most beautiful of fabrics.
The revolutionary events are certainly present in City of Man's Desire too, but they seem - except in the case of the revolutionary Murad, of course - to take place on a different plane from that in which the other players move, whose world is of a refinement now lost and hard to imagine, an aloofness which may or may not have been consciously chosen as a pose; despite the personal suffering that overtakes several of them - most of them in fact - that lost world evokes a certain nostalgia recognizable to anyone who has stood awhile daydreaming alongside the Galata Tower or near the Dolmabahce Palace, looking out over the Bosphorus, so strong a nostalgia in fact that it is only with difficulty that one can free oneself of this longing for the “good old days” (which of course were not at all so good). Finally, I like to note that the book describes an important stage in the development of Turkey as a modern nation, now aspiring to EU membership. I am sure that readers interested in Turkey's history will also find this novel very rewarding. I, for one, enjoyed City of Man's Desire very much, and I can - and will - recommend it to everyone! 
P.J. Wolthers

An exceptionally successful
historical novel

City of Man’s Desire, A Novel of Constantinople, by Cornelia Golna, appeared some months ago, brought out by the small, independent-minded publishing company, Go-Bos Press. Before examining the content of the book, I feel bound as a critical reader to note that we are dealing here with an exceptional publication in the literary world. It is clear from the start that Cornelia Golna’s debut novel was an ambitious project, as the historical novel genre – of which, in my opinion, this book is an excellent example – is not only demanding but full of pitfalls. This may also be the reason why so few writers nowadays venture to enter its terrain, not to mention the relatively little interest the general reading public shows for it. This is especially the case if the novel deals with the history of places that for various reasons do not rank high in public opinion. And it holds doubly for the Balkans and their tumultuous history. As a writer you have to be very motivated indeed to embark on such an undertaking, knowing that you are going against all prevailing prejudices. In order to be successful, you must be prepared to put on a tight straightjacket. The historical novel offers relatively little room for unbridled imagination and boundless subjectivity if it wants to avoid degenerating into a pulp scenario. The crucial feature of a responsible historical novel, in contrast to other forms of literary fiction, is the believability of the framework in which the plot unfolds and of the characters involved in it. And it is here that Cornelia Golna excels.

Little by little, in the beginning chapters, the lost world of Constantinople at the start of the twentieth century comes to life, so that after a few dozen pages, the reader experiences it as a natural reality. The movements of the characters in the first part of the book seem aimed at giving a topographic description of the city. The reader is guided as it were by the characters through the quarters of the city in which they lead their daily lives. Thus emerges the image of a city that inspired the fascination of many and was the object of desire of its conquerors.

In 324 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine made the city his capital. Because of strong Greek cultural predominance during the late empire and the wealth of the Greek cities of Asia Minor, the center of power had moved gradually eastward. At that time, the notion of two worlds within the borders of the empire did not exist. The various divisions of the empire were the result of measures taken to combat internal instability or withstand the pressures of violent attacks from the outside. The effect of this shift was that Rome declined and Constantinople prospered. Almost a thousand years would pass before the first signs of the city’s tragic fate were revealed. The Crusades can be considered the first meeting between the two by then very different cultures, which had crystallized within the same European tradition. The fourth Crusade, with the capture of the city in 1204 by the Crusaders under the leadership of the Republic of Venice, was the prelude to the complete decline of Byzantine power. The Ottomans sealed the fate of the pillar of Eastern Christendom with the conquest of the city in 1453. Thus the separation of the two worlds became complete, for the pearl of the East became the seat of mighty Islam, which immediately took over and assimilated its symbols of power – with all the pomp and magnificence that went with them.

All the layers of this momentous history come to life in Cornelia Golna’s book, as do the various ethnic groups with their traditions and religions, who at the beginning of the twentieth century lived in relative harmony alongside each other in this metropolis. The reader becomes witness to a cosmopolitan world which in fact finds itself on the verge of its demise, for the small human drama which is the book’s plot is closely interwoven with the great drama of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, whose fate is ultimately sealed with the dethronement of the last sultan, Abdul Hamid II, in 1909, during the revolution of the Young Turks.

The main character in the story is the young Greek girl Theodora Vlachos, the daughter of one of the many Greek families that lived in the city. In that environment of Greek merchants, who together with the Armenians and the Jews formed the empire’s middle class, traditional Greek cultural values were fostered and passed on, albeit in a petty bourgeois manner, which the author describes from time to time with the necessary irony. You could say that the time span of a little more than a year covered in the book is the period in which Theodora crosses the threshold into adulthood and concurrently the period in which the first steps were taken toward the emancipation and modernization of Turkey. Of course, this process could not take place without bringing up life’s great questions, which incite doubts in the young woman. Nor could the modernization of the empire take place without clashes between the wisdom that comes from tradition on the one hand, with its mystical aspects, and rational thinking on the other, with its axiomatic-deductive approach, which takes on a dogmatic value for its proponents.

The representative of the new thinking and thus the champion of the modernization of the empire is to be found in the person of the fanatic, uncompromising Young Turk, Murad. Through the contribution to the plot of the Russian adventurers, the brother and sister Vladimir and Natalya Petrov, as well as the Western intellectuals John Townsend and Nils Pettersson, the cast of characters seems to represent all the forces present in the declining years of the old capital of the Turkish Empire. Cornelia Golna’s Constantinople is not only a city on the dividing line separating the feudal-traditional way of life, in which, thanks to privileges granted by the sultan, there was room for the different cultures and religions, and modernization in the form of the introduction of a secularized, democratic system. It soon becomes clear that the ideal of the nation-state, for which the Young Turks fought, left little room for the rich variety of cultures that had made up Constantinople throughout its long history.

The way in which Cornelia Golna presents these contrasts and seeming paradoxes while never losing sight of the narrative, makesCity of Man’s Desire an exceptionally successful historical novel. Written with love and respect, it is a story very sensitive to the human dimension, against the backdrop of a fascinating historical period. Moreover, the author builds up and balances the tension such that after the last page you find yourself somewhat reluctant to have to awaken from its spell.

Dorin Perie
Ablak, No.3 - 2005

An intelligent, wide-ranging novel

Set in Constantinople in 1908, City of Man's Desire charts the political and sexual awakening of Theodora Vlachos against the background of the Young Turk Revolution. Theodora's adventures begin when she is engaged to teach Greek to the flamboyant Russian exile, Natalya Petrovna, who has fled to Turkey with her brother, Vlad, a revolutionary wanted by the authorities in St. Petersburg. Vlad is working on an archaeological dig in Anatolia whose excavations uncover a past which seems to contain warnings for the present. This immaculately researched story is further enlivened by a cast of eccentrics including the American academic and dreamer, John Townsend, Theodora's ancient cousin Cleopatra who believes she is descended from Byzantine royalty, and snobbish Aunt Phrosso with her liking for classically themed wall paintings. 
An intelligent, wide-ranging novel in a fascinating setting unfamiliar to me, I nevertheless found parts of City of Man's Desire hard going. […] A largely enjoyable read, however, by an author who obviously has a deep understanding of her material. 

Sarah Bower 
UK Co-ordinating Editor 
Historical Novels Review