The Ora­cle of Stamboul

By – August 25, 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.

Hen­ry L. Car­ri­g­an, Jr. writes about books for Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, Library Jour­nal, Book­Page, and Fore­Word. He has writ­ten for numer­ous news­pa­pers includ­ing the Atlanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion, The Char­lotte Observ­er, The Cleve­land Plain Deal­er, The Orlan­do Sen­tinel, The Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, and The Wash­ing­ton Post Book World.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of 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?

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