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Nedim Gürsel: Boğazkesen, Fatih’in Romanı (The Conqueror)

This is only one of two novels by Gürsel translated into English. The eponymous conqueror is Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered various territories that are now part of Turkey, parts of Europe, including Bosnia and Serbia and, in particular, captured Byzantium/Constantinople for the Ottomans.

This novel consists of alternating chapters. The first tells Mehmed’s story, either through his eyes or through the eyes of those that came into contact with him, while the second is the story of a Turkish writer, Fatih Haznedar (fatih is the Turkish for conqueror – we only learn Fatih’s name a few pages before the end), who is writing this novel. We follow his discussions with himself about the writing of the novel, his daily routine and his life. He tells us that he will use the historical record but will fill in the gaps in novel style, so that, in this book, we follow the thoughts of many of the key characters. He seems to spend his time entirely alone, except for a visit from Deniz, a friend of his wife, who is on the run from the authorities for political reasons.

Mehmed II was, not surprisingly, ruthless. Fatih is staying in a house on the shore of the Bosphorus, overlooking Rumelihisarı. Rumelihisarı is also known as Boğazkesen, which is the Turkish for strait cutter, as the castle dominates the European side of the Bosphorus Strait. Boğazkesen, which is the Turkish title of this novel, can also mean throat cutter, which is also relevant to this novel. The castle was built by Mehmed. Indeed, he supervised the building of it himself, as it was built as part of his strategy to capture Constantinople.

Mehmed had been told by a dervish, before he was sultan, that it was part of his destiny to capture Constantinople. The dervish was subsequently burned at the stake and Mehmed always regretted that he was powerless to prevent this. Violence of this sort is something we frequently meet in this book. The idea that it is his destiny to take Constantinople occurs again just before the attack on Constantinople when there is a council of war. Indeed, it is not just his destiny but the Prophet Mohammed apparently said One day Constantinople will be conquered. Great is the commander who will conquer it. Great are his soldiers.

The first two characters we meet in detail both fell victim to Mehmed. The first is a Venetian sea captain Antonio Rizzo. He was carrying supplies for the besieged in Constantinople and, in this book, is very happy as he is having passionate affair with a prostitute. As he comes up to the European side on the Bosphorus, he ia surprised to see Rumelihisarı, as it was not there last time he went by. (It used to be a ruined monastery.) He was supposed to stop and pay a tariff but did not. The first cannonball missed. The second destroyed his ship. He and his surviving crew were rescued. He thinks they will be spared. They are not, as he is impaled and the crew beheaded.

Çandarlı Halil Pasha also fares badly. He had been the grand vizier of Mehmed’s father, Murad II. Murad did fight wars but was less keen on fighting than his son, preferring scholarly pursuits. He twice abdicated in favour of his son and was twice brought back by Çandarlı Halil Pasha, finally dying. Naturally, Çandarlı Halil Pasha’s actions did not endear him to Mehmed. When he tried to persuade Mehmed to abandon the siege of Constantinople, he was ignored. When Constantinople was finally captured, he quickly paid the price.

While we certainly do follow Mehmed, it is not all about him. Fatih had been living in Paris, as had Gürsel, and had missed Istanbul and the Bosphorus. He studies the foundation myths of Istanbul – from Solomon (who, he says, built all the beautiful cities in the world, according to legend) to Yanko ibn Madyan to Alexander the Great. He wanders around old Istanbul, admiring its beauty, and enjoys sailing on the Bosphorus.

The key chapter is, of course, the capture of Constantinople and, though we see it from various perspectives, the main perspective is that of the fictitious Nicolo di Maestri, a young Venetian who had been the secretary on Antonio Rizzo’s ship. He had been captured and Mehmed had taken a fancy to him, so he renamed him Selim and made him his page. Nicolo/Selim is mildly conflicted during the fifty-three day battle but seems to be more pro-Ottoman than pro-Byzantium. As Mehmed’s page, he is in the forefront of what is going on and tells us in great detail. It does not go entirely to plan for Mehmed though, of course, he does win and Nicolo is happy to join in the three day orgy of rape and pillage.

While Fatih is telling us this story, we also follow his thoughts. These include his troubles with writing the novel but also his joy at being in Istanbul and exploring it. However, we soon learn that it is September 1980 and while this would mean little to Western readers, Turkish readers would immediately recognise it as the date of a coup d’etat. Living on his own and out of touch, Fatih is also unaware of it, till Deniz comes knocking on his door again. She is very worried and asks his help to hide her. Though he is married (his wife is back in Paris), he starts an affair with her. Indeed, the affair is so intense that it distracts him from writing his novel and this, he decides, is unacceptable.

This really is a first-class novel and it is a pity it is so little known in English, perhaps because the English-language publisher is a small publisher based in Northfield, Massachusetts. The book does seem to be still in print, at least in the US. (Search for Nedim Gursel and not Nedim Gürsel.) Gürsel writes very well and tells both the story of Mehmed and his capture of Constantinople (we do not learn of his subsequent exploits) and how he came to write what he did. Indeed, the story of the reflective, contemplative novelist, with his love of Istanbul and the Bosphorus, while not as interesting as the main story, still works well. His use of various sources, including Venetian ones (albeit often fictitious) gives us a well-rounded tale which most Westerners would know little about.

Publishing history

First published by Can Yayınları in 1995
First published in English by Talisman House in 2010
Translated by Yavuz Demir and John Ottenhoff