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City of Man's Desire



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by Cornelia Golna 

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This review first appeared in the Dutch-language magazine "Volkskrant", on December 10, 2004.  Permission has been obtained to publish this translation.

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 spotlights 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."

ISBN 90 804 1144 2

Go-Bos Press, 2005

427pp, paperback

Retail price E19.90 or $15

 

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Review by Olaf Tempelman