Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

He left me, and I stayed there and the rail, looking at the bitter Black Sea and its steep forested shores by which the Argonauts had sailed and where presently Trebizond would be seen, that corner of a lost empire, defeated and gone under so long ago that now she scarcely new or remembered lost Byzantium, having grown unworthy of it, blind and deaf and not caring any more, not even believing, and perhaps that was the ultimate hell.  Presently I should come to it; already I was on the way.  It would be a refuge, that agnosticism into which I was slipping down.

Mid-century Turkey, as described in The Towers of Trebizond, hardly qualifies as a foreign country for Westerners: you can't throw a stone without hitting a well-heeled Brit writing his "Turkey book," or a BBC crew filming a television program, or even Billy Graham on a missionary tour.  The protagonist Laurie travels to Turkey with her Aunt Dot, who has two goals: to write her own Turkey book and to aid Muslim women by converting them to Anglicism, though she rarely makes headway in either.  With them is the Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, an "ancient bigot" whose name perfectly captures the kind of religious boorishness he exemplifies.  Also, a camel.

Aunt Dot's earnestness and Father Chantry-Pigg's obliviousness might otherwise make for a darkly tragic novel of culture clash, but Macaulay's light touch ensures that the setup remains comic and harmless:

But first it was to be the eastern end of the Black Sea, and we were to sail in a ship that took camels and plan our campaign from Istanbul.

"Constantinople," said Father Chantry-Pigg, who did not accept the Turkish conquest.

"Byzantium," said I, not accepting the Roman one.

Aunt Dot, who accepted facts, said, "How many of our friends are in Turkey just now?"

"A lot,"  I said.  "They are all writing their Turkey books..."

It also contains one of my new favorite sentences:

Then he stopped laughing, and said in the voice one uses when a friend has been killed by a shark, "You heard about poor Charles?"

Yet The Towers of Trebizond is heavily invested in questions of personal faith and social religion.  Laurie, coming from a stolidly Anglican family, is carrying on an adulterous relationship with a married man which has led her away from the Church:

I was agnostic through school and university, then, at twenty-three, took up with the Church again; but the Church met its Waterloo a few years later when I took up with adultery; (curious how we always seem to see Waterloo from the French angle and count it as a defeat) and this adultery lasted on and on...

Turkey seems like an awfully odd place to set a story about one woman's struggle with her specifically English religion, but it provides an isolation for Laurie that is crucial to her self-reflection.  Moreover, Macaulay draws an explicit link between Laurie's faith and the Orthodox Christianity that has disappeared from Turkey, only to be found in the form of ruins.  I particularly like this exchange, in which she talks with a Turkish convert to Anglicism who is thinking of converting back to Islam for her lover:

She sighed as she ate her yoghourt.  I thought how sad it was, all this progress and patriotism and marching on and conquering the realms of culture, yet love rising up to spoil all and hold one back, and what was the Christian Church and what was Islam against this that submerged the human race and always had?  It had submerged Anthony and Cleopatra, and Abelard and Heloise, and Lancelot and Guinevere, and Paolo and Francesca, and Romeo and Juliet, and Charles Parnell and Faust, and Oscar Wilde and me, and Halide and her Moslem man, and countless millions more.  It kept me outside the Church, and might drive Halide out of it, it was the greatest force, and drove like a hurricane, shattering everything in its way, no one had a chance against it, the only thing was to go with it, because it always won.

I love the control Macaulay exhibits in this passage, carrying us along rapidly as if on the hurricane of love, yet her prose is brilliantly clear.  And I appreciate this attitude, because I think we are bombarded constantly with the idea that love between two people is stronger and more valuable than any belief or other facet of human experience.  It can be a destructive force, too; it binds us to another flawed person, after all.  No wonder that it blindsides us so frequently with agony.  And yet it is hard to escape from under, as Laurie knows.  Macaulay has a way of making everything seem ironic or insincere, but I think that these words are genuine.

Eventually, Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg abscond into Russia to convert the Soviets and Laurie has to travel around Turkey on her own.  The farcical elements of the book recede without them, though I did laugh at the bit in which Laurie, having mistook the phrase in her Turkish phrasebook for "I don't speak Turkish," accidentally asks everyone she meets to "telephone Mr. Yorum," until a real Mr. Yorum appears at a hotel and they share a very confused dinner.

The end of the book caught me completely by surprise.  It seems, like I've said, like a harmless tale, one in which even getting killed by a shark is played for a joke and not for pathos.  Yet the ending is incongruous and deeply sad, in a way that is somehow more sad because the book is exceedingly not.  It was, for me, one of "the times when you wake suddenly up, and the fog breaks, and right and wrong loom through it, sharp and clear like peaks of rock, and you are on the wrong peak and know that, unless you can manage to leave it now, you may be marooned there for life and ever after."

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