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Vera Mutafchieva:Случаят Джем (The Case of Cem)

Cem Sultan is undoubtedly very little known in the West but this is the second novel featuring him on my website, the first being Bosnian novelist Ivo Andrić‘s Prokleta avlija (Devil’s Yard; The Damned Yard). This novel, however, is far more detailed and complex than Andrić’s.

Cem was the third son of Mehmed II, known as Mehmed the Conqueror who conquered Constantinople and made incursions into Europe. It was during a campaign into Europe that he died suddenly without designating a heir. This novel starts at this point.

Normally, it would be the elder son, Bayezid, who would be the heir and that is how Bayezid and others saw it. Cem, however, thought he should be the heir. He had the slight advantage in that he was nearer to Constantinople and initially appeared to have the upper hand but soon lost it, making the mistake in thinking all would welcome him as the heir. For various political reasons, this turned out not to be the case.Bayezid and his army soon took over and Cem and his men fled. We follow their difficult journey as they manage, after a hard journey, to flee to Rhodes, then occupied by the Knights Hospitaller, led by Pierre d’Aubusson. The bulk of the book is what happens to Cem subsequently.

The book is narrated by a series of narrators so we get a variety of perspectives. The main narrator is the Persian poet Saadi. Cem may have been an Ottoman sultan, a warrior and a keen wrestler, but he also liked the arts and he and his court enjoyed poetry and the artistic life. Saadi and Cem were and remained very close. Indeed, there are strong indications that the two had a homosexual relationship. Saadi is fairly disparaging about women. (In our world, woman was something (not even someone) with which you could commune in a single and very simple way, with no choice, no searching, and no preference. We bought our women before seeing their faces. Sometimes we would get lucky—their faces would turn out to be tolerable. More often than not, things didn’t go well. But in both cases, we were to be pitied, believe me). However it is also clear that he was a highly competent poet and a very good friend to Cem and most (though certainly by no means all) of the story is told by him.

Cem is in many respects a trophy. The West and, as we shall see, the West comprised several, often conflicting players, uses him and/or tries to use him for their own advantage. Bayezid, of course, wants him out of the way as he could unite opposition to Bayezid’s rule as not all the Turks favour him. However, he also remembers that Cem is his half-brother.

The key players are firstly Pierre d’Aubusson and his Hospitallers are broke. Cem is money. They get money from Bayezid to look after Cem but are also eager to get money from others if they can. Their problems, as well as the financial one, are that Rhodes is not safe and could easily be attacked by the Turks, so they move him to their various properties in France. The problem there is that they are in France and the French are interested in Cem as a well. Other players include Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary and on the front line as the Turks move into Europe; the Pope, particularly Innocent VIII, who wants a crusade against the Turks to enhance his reputation but is succeeded by Alexander VI, formerly a Borgia and father of many children The family were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, incest, simony, theft, bribery, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning. We also have Qaitbay, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt. There are others involved, including various French and Italian nobles, the Venetians, the English and the Germans. The matter is made more complicated as the story lasts a long time and various key players (popes, kings of France, for example) die and are replaced, often by successors with different aims and ambitions.

There are various aspects that make this such a fine novel. Firstly there is the incredible complexity of the political situation of the period. Everyone, it seems, is trying to outwit, deceive, cheat, conquer and outsmart everyone else for political and/or financial gain. The popes want a crusade to save their souls but also want political power, with the French their main enemy. Cem can be bought and sold for political advantage or money and his price fluctuates, according to the current situation and the price goes up and down like a valuable painting. Saadi/Cem get wind of some of this but by no means all.The players try to influence Cem in various ways, including sex (he is not entirely gay), by moving him around, by allowing or not allowing him access to his followers and by allowing or not allowing him to send and/or receive messages. It is not surprising that he has something of a nervous breakdown.

Related to all this is his relationship with his half-brother. Obviously Bayezid is somewhat worried that Cem and his supporters could rally opposition to him and be used by the West as a figurehead to attract such opposition. Cem thinks that he should be the rightful heir, not least because he was his father’s favourite. However they are half brothers and of the same race and family and there are glimpses, though only glimpses and these may be hypocritical, that there is some brotherly affection or, at least, that they are not entirely enemies.

The other key feature of this book is the choice of narrators. Cem is not a narrator and what we know of him is primarily from Saadi’s narration. Indeed, none of the key figures are narrators. The narrators are primarily smaller players, messengers, spies, assistants and the like, including, of course Saadi. I assume that they are are all fictitious, giving Mutafchieva free rein to have them tell a colourful version of events. All seem to have strong views both on the situation and on the respective major players, including those that are their bosses. They are of various nationalities, even including one Englishman (a turcopole) and all are more or less self-assured, except for the one woman, a victim of the patriarchal society. Mutafchieva was a historian but it is clear that this book is not always historically accurate and it is to a great extent these minor characters that allow her to add much colour to the tale. It is Saadi who says I’ve known a lot of men in my day, make no mistake: they all think they have been called to set the world aright, while they can’t even manage the simplest task— managing their own houses, wives, and servants but this remark could have been made by almost any other of these minor figures. The other key aspect of these narrators is that, while for the most part, they are reporting from their time, several of them, Saadi included, will occasionally report from the future, even up to the present day, as though their spirits still survive and survey how the world, their world in particular, has changed though not necessarily improved.

And how does it end? Cem dies, of course, in Naples, possibly poisoned though most likely from pneumonia, while Bayezid is done in by his son the wonderfully named Selim the Grim.

This is a wonderful, complex, colourful tale, a joy to read. It is a pity it has taken so long for it to appear in English. While a couple of her non-fiction works have appeared in English , this is her first novel in English (another novel has been translated into German). We must be grateful to Sandorf Passage and translator Angela Rodel for it and hope there is more to come.

Publishing history

First published in 1967 by Издателство на Националния съвет на Отечествения фронт (Publishing House of the National Council of the Fatherland Front)
First English translation in 2024 by Sandorf Passage
Translated by Angela Rodel