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.