Book review: Sailing through Byzantium, By Maureen Freely
Orient excess: high times and deep waters by the Bosphorus
Friday 27 September 2013
At the hottest moment of the Cold War, as the Cuban missile crisis reaches its climax on 27 October 1962, a group of hedonistic artists, aristocrats, American expatriates, international spies and shady local hangers-on gather for a glamorous End of the World Party in Istanbul's old bohemian quarter on the shores of the Bosphorus. Fifty years later, Mimi, who was ten at the time and spent the evening cowering tearfully under the piano, returns to try to make sense of her tangled memories.
Maureen Freely, famous as Orhan Pamuk's most adept translator into English, is also an accomplished novelist. Those new to her chronicles of life among the Istanbul American community of the 1960s and 1970s - this is her third novel in that milieu - will be beguiled by her cast of alluring Fellini-esque characters. Devoted readers of The Life of the Party and Enlightenment are reunited with sorely missed old friends, like the skinny-dipping dipsomaniac academic Hector Cabot, William Wakefield, the cynical spy master, and Ismet the seductive secret policeman with black velvet eyes.
Mimi's parents are free spirits who leave their working-class roots and the stultifying conformity of 1950s America to see the world with three small children in tow. Her father is a nuclear physicist and cultural polymath who seizes the opportunity to teach in Istanbul, her mother Grace an artistic soul who sings the blues. Their life in Istanbul is a blur of drunken parties and travel; even taking a trip to Egypt on a Soviet ship just when Nasser and Tito are holding a summit in Alexandria.
Mimi is a fragile child with an over-active imagination. Unsettled by the move from America, and terrified by the prospect of imminent nuclear annihilation, she is plagued by anxiety and prone to tears. Her mother entrusts her with the task of being "the artist and scribe of their great adventure".
Armed with her sketchbook and invisible ink, she resolves to be her mother's eyes and ears, but as Mimi plays at being Nancy Drew she is drawn into a web of paranoia and misunderstanding that is to have grave consequences. Freely's roman à clef is compulsively readable, thought-provoking and entertaining.
She conveys Mimi's childish misapprehensions masterfully, while giving us glimpses of the adults' complex motivations, often to great comic effect. Yet there is much tragedy here too, because the betrayals borne of lies, even those told out of love, have the power to destroy lives.
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