The Oracle of Stamboul

HarperCollins  2011

Late in the summer of 1877, as the defenseless Ottoman village of Constanta falls to the relentless onslaught of the Russian cavalry, mysterious and miraculous events usher new life and light into the household of the merchant Yakob Cohen and his wife, Leah. While Constanta perishes, a pair of Tartar midwives arrives at the Cohen’s small stone house proclaiming to have read the signs of an inexplicable prophecy uttered by the king on his deathbed—a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the north star in alignment with the moon—and ask to be shown to the bedroom. Soon after, little Eleonora Cohen brings new life to her desolate surroundings, even as her mother, Leah, dies soon after naming her daughter. Shortly after the young girl’s birth, a flock of hoopoes settles in near her house, accompanying her wherever she goes.

A child prodigy, Eleonora possesses a gift for reading, math, and languages as well as an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Her great adventure begins when she is eight years old and she stows away in her father’s trunk so that she will not be separated from him as he sets off to do business in Stamboul. The hoopoes follow her there, watching over her, and in Stamboul she finds herself a guest in the home of the sultan and suddenly in the middle of various political intrigues and personal crises. Eleonora’s final acts are both haunting and liberating.

In this magical tale of loss, love, and redemption, first-novelist Lukas delightfully captures a young girl’s awakening curiosity about the world around her, her joyous discovery of the books and reading that transport her to other worlds, and her coming of age in turbulent times.


by Jaclyn Trop

Jaclyn Trop: For someone rarely allowed to leave the confines of her house, Eleonora knows a lot about the world. How did the books in her father’s library prepare her for her journey?
MDL: I always thought of Eleonora as a character who sees the world almost entirely through the lens of literature, like difference being that Eleonora’s trust in literature is a strength, not a flaw. Reading is her superpower. The books in her father’s library—from Aesop’s Fables to Robinson Crusoe and The Arabian Nights—all give her a sense of the adult world and how it works. But it’s from The Hourglass, a “magical seven-volume chronicle of a notable Bucharest family in decline,” that she learns her greatest lessons.

JT: Is The Hourglass a real book?
MDL: It’s invented. And it is one of my favorite parts of the novel. There’s something utterly magical about a piece of art that exists only within another piece of art. Such imaginary works—like Vinteuil’s Sonata in Proust or the works of Pursewarden in The Alexandria Quartet—have a magic hologram quality to them, which is fun in a Borgesian/Escherian kind of way. It’s also about as close as a work of art can come to perfection, existing only as a reflection in the reader’s imagination.

JT: The setting is the Ottoman Empire circa 1885. What motivated you to write about this particular time and place?
MDL: Although the novel’s setting seems pretty inseparable from the rest of the book (it’s right there in the title, in fact) it actually took some time to figure out. For a while the book was set i n Mamluk Cairo, then it was in Damascus, then Jerusalem. The inspiration to set the novel in the Ottoman Empire circa 1885 came on an unplanned trip to Istanbul— that’s a long story in and of itself— about five months after I began writing it.

I had been to Istanbul before, when I was eighteen, but it was on this second trip that I truly fell in love with the city. Having already seen the major sites, I spent my days wandering the narrow side streets of Beyoglu, watching the pigeons gather in the courtyard of the Besiktas Mosque, and taking the ferry back and forth across the Bosporus, from Europe to Asia and back again. On my third or fourth day in Istanbul, I decided to visit the antique stores around a neighborhood called Cukurcuma.

At the back of a particularly cluttered store—past the spice tins, the coffee grinders, and the blue enamel tea pots—I noticed a pile of old photographs balanced in the hollow of a wide crystal bowl. There, at the top of the pile was a picture of a young girl from the 1880’s, staring out across history with a laconic, penetrating gaze. When I saw this picture, everything clicked. Here was my protagonist. It made perfect sense. The novel would be set in Istanbul, on the very streets I had been wandering for the past three days. I bought the photo, went back to my hotel, and spent most of the night writing feverishly. Seven years and seven drafts later, I had The Oracle of Stamboul.

JT: How were you able to write so convincingly from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl? Does the story have any autobiographical elements?
MDL: I definitely see myself in my characters, even though they live very different lives than my own. Sometimes writing can feel like that scene in “Being John Malkovich,” when John Malkovich enters his own mind and finds himself in a restaurant filled with John Malkovichs saying “Malkovich, Malkovich.” I guess what I am trying to say is that we can’t help but imbue our characters with our own thoughts, feelings, and characteristics, whether the character is a preternaturally intelligent orphan or the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. And when characters have thoughts, feelings, and characteristics that are recognizably human, they feel convincing.

JT: What role does Judaism play in the novel?
MDL: A number of people have asked me why I chose to make Eleonora Jewish. To me, there was never a question of whether she would be Jewish. She was always Jewish, ever since that first seed of inspiration. The question was how to represent her Jewishness, and how specifically to deal with the place of Jews in the Ottoman Empire. In writing the book, and the Jewish elements in particular, I tried my best to balance the two primary historical approaches to Jews in the Ottoman Empire: those that emphasize coexistence and those that emphasize strife. I wanted to portray a sense of multiethnic coexistence without ignoring anti- Semitism, and the many other brands of ethnic strife rampant in the Ottoman Empire. So in the end, Jewish themes are very important to The Oracle of Stamboul, but they swirl about in the background.

JT: The novel raises many political, religious and spiritual themes, but nothing is resolved. Why did you choose to have Eleonora walk out on her “fate” and forge a path in obscurity?
MDL: The Oracle of Stamboul is, I hope, an enjoyable read and a mostly accurate picture of the Ottoman capital in its last days. It is also, I would like to think, something more— a meditation of sorts on the nature of history. Towards the end of the book I tried to introduce the possibility that Eleonora could, through her advice to the Sultan, indeed, through her very presence in the world, push back against the tides of history and set the world right again on its axis. Whether she fulfilled the prophecy or not, I wanted to suggest the possibility of an alternate history, a history in which the chasm between east and west doesn’t seem so wide. I wanted to suggest a world in which Europe and Asia are no more than a ferry ride apart, a world in which the presence of one remarkable person can shift the balance.

Discussion Questions

from HarperCollins

1. A prophecy foretold the birth of a girl like Eleonora Cohen. Do you believe in mystical propositions such as prophecies? Do you think the events surrounding her birth were truly foretold or just coincidence? Why do we in the West dismiss the idea of prophets and prophecies? Have we lost something in doing so?

2. What were your impressions of Eleonora? What made her different from others, especially other children?

3. What was the significance of the purple and white hoopoes in the story? Why did animals behave as they did around Eleonora? Do you believe animals can sense things differently—perhaps better—than humans?

4. Eleonora's life touched those of many adults, including her father, Yakob. Talk about their bond. How did the various characters in the story view Eleonora? How did her father see her? What about her tutor, the Reverend James Muehler ? Her father's friend and her guardian, Moncef Bey? The sultan and the other people in his palace, including his mother and his counselor, the Grand Vezir? What about the American journalist? What impact does Mrs. Damakan, the Bey's housekeeper, play in the course of the girl's early life?

5. When she mastered reading, Eleonora's favorite saga was a seven-volume epic called The Hourglass. What lessons did she learn from the novel? How did the book impact the events that followed? Do you have a favorite book that has influenced you?

6. Why was Ruxandra, the girl's stepmother, suspicious of her gifts, and especially hostile to her reading? Why are so many people afraid of learning and knowledge? Are some people too wise for the world?

7. When it comes to books, Eleonora's tutor, the Reverend Muehler tells her guardian Moncef Bey, "I have never held the novel in much esteem. It is a genre for idle women and romantic young boys. Such frivolousness, even a masterpiece such as The Hourglass, cannot have any real utility. But I would think that if she were given more serious reading material—philosophy, history, rhetoric—it might do her some good." What do you think of the reverend's condemnation of the novel? Can we learn as much from fiction as nonfiction? Should we teach more literature to young people? Does it matter if they read novels or not?

8. "If there was one thing she learned from The Hourglass it as that you should always follow the dictates of your own heart." Do you agree with this? What happens when we don't follow the dictates of our hearts? When might we choose not to do so?

9. When the Reverend Muehler and Yakob met on the ship, they exchanged stories of their travels. "It goes without saying, perhaps, that a missionary and a carpet dealer would encounter vastly different segments of a city's population." What kinds of people would both meet? Might their lives have crossed if they hadn't shared a cabin on the boat to Stamboul? Do you think their meeting was fate—part of the prophecy surrounding Eleonara's birth? Do you believe in fate or destiny? How does choice impact fate?

10. Speaking of destiny, Eleonora pondered the losses she had suffered while rereading The Hourglass. "She had a small comfort in the sentiment that our paths in life are laid according to a plan more grandiose that we could ever conceive or comprehend." Do you share her sentiment? How does believing in this offer solace?

11. The city of Stamboul is more than just a backdrop to this novel. It is a character in itself. How did Eleonora imagine Stamboul to be? What were your impressions of the city? Has there ever been a place that has sparked your imagination as Stamboul did for Eleanora?

12. Early in her stay in Stamboul, Eleonora wished she could stay in the city forever. Do you think she does? Or will fate take her somewhere else? Can someone of her gifts truly hide in plain sight?

13. The sultan disagreed with his closest councilor on the methods of effective governance. For the sultan, "an effective ruler needed more than anything to maintain a proper distance from the events that occurred within his domain. If he allowed himself to fret over the particulars of every battle and infrastructure project, he would never be able to focus on the decisions that truly mattered." Do you agree with this? Can a leader become too caught up in the details? But might ignoring details be detrimental for good leadership?

14. Why was the sultan willing to grant Eleanora an audience? What advice do you think she gave him? If you heard that the president met with someone like Eleonora, what would you think? What is the reaction in Stamboul after word of Eleonora's visit spreads?

15. When Eleonora discovers something incriminating about the reverend, she isn't sure whether or not to confide in the Bey. "Plato would seem to think she should. Truth is the beginning of every good to the gods, and of every good to man. Then again, there was Tertullian. Truth engenders hatred of the truth. As soon as it appears it is the enemy." Discuss both of these viewpoints. Which do you side with more? Why does the truth engender hatred?

16. Another philosophical debate Eleonora has is between doing something wrong and not yet doing the right thing. "Was there a difference between these two sins?" she wonders. How would you answer this question?

17. After her tragedy, Eleonora stops speaking. What does being "voiceless" offer her? If you chose not to speak for a few days, what might you learn? Do you think it would make you a better listener?

18. Is history important? Who ultimately writes our history? Do you think Eleonora changed the course of this particular empire?

19. Why did Eleonora make the choice she did at the story's end? Was she walking away from her "fate"—or was she ultimately saving her life?

Reading The Oracle of Stamboul with your book club? 

Michael David Lukas shares recipes for a delicious, Turkish-inspired meal. 


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