Here’s the interview I did with Enrico Franceschini, on publication of L’Albero dei Giannizzeri
1) From the biographical author’s notes on the back-cover of the book (“lives in Sussex with his wife and their four children”), one can imply that you are not an eunuch: how did the idea to write a novel about one came about?
Well, I wanted to do a character with a slightly detached view of society – someone who didn’t quite belong to the world in which he found himself. Think of the great literary detectives – Chandler’s Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, or even Hercule Poirot – they are essentially lonely men, on the margin of the world whose morals and motives they study. A eunuch is the extreme form!
Eunuchs occupy a huge place in world history, especially in the east. They could be described as ‘perfect servants’, because they could have no dynastic ambitions of their own. It was only in western Europe that mediaeval states relied on celibate priests and monks instead. Yashim, my eunuch investigator, is effectively dedicated to serving the people.
There’s a practical reason, too, why a eunuch would make a good detective in Ottoman society: there is nowhere he cannot go. He can go behind the veil, visit women in the harem. He is almost invisible.
2) Why Istanbul, why the Ottoman Empire, why 1830-40?
I’ve always been fascinated by the city, perhaps ever since I read the poetry of WB Yeats as a boy. I studied Byzantine history at Cambridge. Fifteen years ago I walked – with the girl who is now my wife – from the Baltic to the Bosphorus, from Poland down to Istanbul. It took five months. By the time we reached Krakow, and certainly before we entered Transylvania, the historical, cultural echoes had subtly changed – instead of Germany and Russia, we were beginning to feel the influence of Istanbul and the Ottomans. It was in the food, the architecture, the music – even in people’s minds.
After that, I was hooked on Istanbul. I began to research a history of the Ottomans, which came out about six years ago: ‘Lords of the Horizons’.
I was drawn to Istanbul in the 1830s because it’s such an interesting time in the history of that astonishing city, a time of flux and change and new ideas, when the Ottomans embarked on a radical and ultimately unsuccessful experiment to renegotiate their relationship with their subjects, and with the wider world. So Istanbul in the 1830s feels the lure of modernity and the pull of tradition, all at once.
On top of that, Istanbul was a great port, and the turnstile between Europe and Asia. It wasn’t just a Turkish city: it was a Greek city, a Jewish and Armenian city, a world capital that was beginning to build up a sizeable foreign population, too.
All those tensions and conflicts – it’s the perfect place to find a dead body…
A few weeks ago, in Istanbul, I found myself drinking tea with some kindly Turkish policemen. They were sad because there has never been a great movie set in the Ottoman period; I think they are right. After all, the Ottomans are exotic, foreign, whatever – but their story is also our story. And it is amazingly under-explored, in fiction certainly.
3) I should add: why to wrap all you wanted to say about all this in a detective-story?
Because almost everyone likes detective stories. My mother, for instance, reads about six a week! There is an honourable place for ‘difficult’ modern fiction, of course – but readers also have the right to expect a cracking good story, with a proper ending, which is what a detective story has to provide.
4) Your book is also the story of a misterious plot against a great power, organized by a strange order or sect of ancient guard-warriors: should the reader expect anything similar to Umberto Eco’s or Dan Brown novels, and anyway – have you read them and whazt do you think of them?
I’m one of the people who hasn’t read da Vinci Code – but I did read an earlier thriller of Dan Brown’s, and I particularly admired his ability to keep his reader hooked. It wasn’t the absurd plot, and it couldn’t have been the characters, either. Eventually I decided it was something to do with having lots of very short chapters, so I used that technique myself. It does work.
As for Umberto Eco, I’ve always been a fan. He’s a much cleverer writer than I am, of course. He said something on the radio the other day I thought was very true: that books are often more intelligent than their authors. I hope he’s right.
5) It is also the story of a man who cannot phisically love women but still loves them: is that possible? what “message” is in there? or, more generally, how do you see love between men and women?
The story goes that God wanted to be adored and praised by the fullness of his creation, each in his or her own voice; which is why people are so different all around the world. Men and women, too. Together, they should complement each other, like voices in a choir. That’s the ideal.
Learning to love what is different is the essence of love, generally – tolerance is love in its weakest form. It is important to recognise the vulnerability of others. Men and women are peculiarly vulnerable to each other; to overcome that, they have to discover trust. Sex is an aspect of that, but only one aspect.
Yashim loves men, too. I was brought up surrounded by women, and they remain a fascinating mystery to me even now.
6) The book is written in a wonderful, magical, I’d say “Oriental” style: is it your “natural” style or the product of great labour or what?
That’s very kind! What can I say – I approached the novel with a great sense of freedom, and I wrote it very quickly, enjoying every minute. I think the style simply reflects that – it’s my voice, really, but my cheerful and enthusiastic voice!
7) Speaking of which, who are your favorite novelists, the writers that inspired you? And please, tell us if you read and like also crime-fiction writers, and which ones?
There are many writers I admire – Anne Tyler, Rose Tremain, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and George MacDonald Fraser, who writes the Flashman books! Graham Greene’s The Confidential Agent is one of the best thrillers ever written.
Odd as it may seem, I consider Beatrix Potter to be one of the best storytellers; I say this after twelve years at the coalface. I can still quite happily pull out one of her books and read it – for the 400th time – to a small child at bedtime. I’ve since realised that some of the situations in The Janissary Tree are inspired (loosely, of course) by The Tale of Mr. Tod.
On that note, I adore nineteenth century writers generally, and my happiest discovery recently has been Edmondo de Amicis, whose book on Constantinople has been translated into English for the first time. It’s a proper Victorian tour de force, everything is in it – and he apparently was only there for a week or two!
8) Your book, if I am correct, will come out at the same time in many countries, including the UK. You had written previous books of non-fiction, but it’s your first novel: how did it got so much attention from the
It’s twenty-six countries, so far – and I am amazed. It must be a question of lucky timing, with Turkey always in the news now, as a candidate for EU membership; there is also a lot more interest in, and awareness of, the Ottoman heritage. That’s true in Turkey itself – the Turks are much more open towards their past than they have been for years.
Also, don’t forget that a lot of European countries can claim a piece of Ottoman history for themselves. Italy, certainly – the Ottomans landed in Otranto in 1480, and swept up to the banks of the Piave, too. And others, more directly concerned – ruled by the Ottomans, for instance. So there is a genuine wave of curiosity, I think.
It doesn’t explain the Koreans, of course; but maybe they are just adventurous readers?
9) It is also announced as “the first” story of Yashim, the Ottoman detective, in a series: how many have you written or planned, and do you intend to keep writing fiction only about Istanbul?
I’m writing the second Yashim book now, so it will come out next summer. It’s about the Greeks, and their story in Istanbul. After that, there’s another in which the Polish Ambassador will play a greater role – he’s Yashim’s best friend, of course.
But there are other books I want to write, history books – there is a subject I’ve started researching, on the religious architecture of Istanbul and the renaissance. I’m looking forward to that.
10) Finally, you made a pilgrimage to Istanbul – but then came back and live in Sussex. If you love so much Bizantium and the light, colours, atmosphere, history of the East, how can you spend your life in grey, rainy England?
I was in Istanbul a few weeks ago, as I say – and I was glad I had the wool suit. It was grey and rainy – the weather there is much gloomier than you’d imagine. And today, here at home in Sussex, I’m putting out the zucchini plants and training the borlotti beans on their beanploes – in full, glorious sunshine!