Friday, 26 May 2017

Ottomania! by Barbara Nadel


When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s the idea of monarchy becoming a relevant political force seemed laughable. In 1973 the king of Greece, Constantine, was deposed in a military coup which constituted the last overthrow of monarchy in a Europe that had been gradually getting rid of its royals since the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1979 the Shah of Iran fell and royal families seemed to be on their way out.

Of course in the UK we had and still have our constitutional monarchy which has no political power. But then in 1978 something a bit strange happened in Spain when the Spanish monarchy was restored in the wake of the dictatorship of the fascist leader Francisco Franco. Suddenly Spain had a king and continues to have one to this day.

In the Turkey of my youth one didn't often talk about the sultans who had once ruled what had been, until 1923 (when the Turkish Republic was born) the Ottoman Empire. Occasionally you'd meet someone, someone else would tell you was a prince or princess, but in very hushed tones as if talking about violent death. Until this current century it was considered very backward-looking and  almost shameful to talk about a vanished empire and its archaic system of governance. To be one of 'them' was something that people kept dark.

And indeed when I started writing my Ikmen books back in the 1990s, this had not changed. Those who know my crime novels will recognise immediately that I referred to this phenomenon when I devised the character of Inspector Mehmet Suleyman. Back in the old days of the empire, he would have been a prince, but in the modern world of the Republic, he's just a man whose background is slightly 'exotic'.

However, as time has progressed, things have changed in Turkey. Now, rather than be ashamed of one's Ottoman heritage it is considered a badge of honour. Indeed, when the then head of the royal house of Osmanoglu died in 2009, he was given a state funeral which was attended by government ministers as well as thousands of members of the public.

I have reflected this in my books as Mehmet Suleyman's ancestry becomes more prominent in his life, even though he is not always happy about this. Not all of the vast Osmanoglu family are. Many of them don't even live in Turkey and some see what could be called the rehabilitation of the empire as a backward step.

But whatever the rights and wrongs, what has been called Ottomania, a yearning for the old days of empire, is a real force in Turkey these days. Allied to many of the beliefs and philosophies of the ruling party, love for all things Ottoman is very common and is becoming big business. I can remember a time when you couldn't give Ottoman furniture away. Not now.

In light of this development when I came to writing what is Ikmen book number 19, it was no surprise to me or anyone else that I turned to Ottomania for inspiration. The House of Four is the story of Ottoman relics, both architectural and human and is a study of what happens when families collude in hiding both themselves and their secrets from the world. It's also about how being 'royal' albeit with no power, can cause people to behave in ways that are not always adaptive. Indeed, I would say that on one level 'The House of Four', as well as being a murder mystery, is also an exploration of what it means to be exalted above others by virtue of one's status at birth. The more I dug into the subject the more I came to realise that it is a really unhealthy way to be. It certainly is for the royal characters in this book!

How Mehmet Suleyman will fare in this brave new world of Ottomania, I will leave the reader to discover. But life is changing for him in ways he never dreamed of back in the 1970s. I know how he feels. 

Read John Parker's review here.
Read Barbara's feature on mental illness here

The House of Four by Barbara Nadel, published by Headline 18th May 2017.

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