Imagine that you are holding a jewelry box. It is small; it fits in your palm. The mother-of-pearl lid glimmers with the radiance of a new moon in the summer night sky. Along the sides, the carvings remind you of swans, egrets flying, full-sailed boats or fishermen swirling nets over placid water. The hinges are unobtrusive. You open the box and see, nestled into the delicate velvet lining, a strand of gemstones. Some flash fire, some hold color deep in their hearts.
Reading The Oracle of Stamboul is like holding that box.
Michael David Lukas’s book, at 297 pages, is just long enough to carry us to a different time and place. The time is the late 1800s and the place is the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
From the Oracle of Stamboul, I learned more than any map, any chart or talking head had ever taught me about the Empire, about Turkey, and about that numinous space in the world where east and west blend. The Ottoman Empire existed for more than six centuries; a huge expanse of geography that was multi-ethnic and multi-faith. By the time Eleanora Cohen, the main character of the book, is born, the Empire is on the final curve of a long downward spiral. The characters do not know that, but the book does. It is against the dramatic backdrop of a pivotal point in history that we learn about Eleanora.
On the day that Eleanora is born, a flock of hoopoes, a bird related to kingfishers, roosts in the town of Constanta, Romania, where Eleanora’s mother is in labor. Leah dies during childbirth, leaving Eleanora to be raised by her loving father Yakob, a Jewish carpet merchant, and Ruxandra, her practical and disapproving aunt. The birds, Eleanora’s flock, however, remain. It soon becomes apparent that Eleanora is a prodigy in many ways. She learns to read quickly. Once she learns to read in one language, others come quickly to her. She does arithmetic in her head, and she has a strange connection with animals. These abilities terrify her aunt, whose disapproval of Eleanora grows.
When Yakob plans a carpet selling trip to the capital of Turkey, Eleanora stows away in one of his trunks. Eleanora has been fascinated by a six-volume novel called The Hourglass, and the adventures its characters have, but she finds crouching in a steamer trunk with no food or water is less glamorous than the book made it sound.
Eleanora had never truly considered what it meant to shut oneself inside a trunk. When she had thought about it at all, she had always imagined that time would pass quickly, that, like the tedious parts of a novel, she could skim through the journey and arrive no worse for the wear in Stamboul. This, of course, was not the case. If anything, time moved more slowly, dragging its hooves like a weary pack horse forced to travel long days at the end of its strength.
Her hoopoes follow her on the journey. When she is discovered, it is too late to return her to Romania, so she stays with her father and his patron, Monsef Barcous Bey.
Lukas’s descriptions are exquisite, painting the images of the river, the cities, bringing the smell and feel of the ocean, the taste of the food and the coffee. Eleanora is a miraculous child, but she is still a child and her view of the world is child-like in many ways. In Moncef Bey’s house she discovers a huge library, and is briefly tutored by the American headmaster, Reverend James Muehler, who is a spy.
The point of view shifts among many of the characters, including the Sultan, Abdulhamid II, a kindly man who seems unprepared to rule his fractious empire. The Sultan enjoys fortune-tellers, talking birds and various oracles, to the concern of his Grand Vizer and his mother. Eleanora’s abilities, shocking in an eight-year-old girl, soon reach the palace and the ears of he sultan. Eleanora and the Sultan share a love of reading novels and a love of birds, and the hoopoes make another connection between the two. The sultan’s mother originally distrusts Eleanora, not because she is a child or because she doesn’t believe in oracles, but because Eleanora is a Jew.
The story is small and fascinating, Lukas’s prose is exquisite, and he uses action and sensuous detail to reveal not only place and time but character, as in this sequence when the Sultan, who is hungry during Ramadan, goes scavenging for a snack.
Glancing out again at the courtyard, he opened the larder doors and pawed through the spices, a tin of sardines, and a stale piece of flatbread. He was on the verge of eating the bread with the sardines when he discovered, at the very back of the larder, a box of baklava. Glistening with syrup, the pastries were dusted with bright green ground pistachios. His mother had a penchant for sweets. It would be no surprise if she had hidden the box specifically for consumption during Ramadan. She was not a young woman, and had been afflicted by the sugar disease for some time now. In either case, she would never know that it was him who had found it. Glancing over his shoulder, he popped one of the pieces into his mouth and swallowed it with only two chews. The next piece he took his time with, savoring the sweet, flaky crunch of the dough and the peculiar tang of the ground pistachios.
The scene not only gives us the texture and flavor of the treat but tells us a great deal about the sultan, the supreme ruler, and his relationship with his mother.
Eleanora is placed in the awkward position of having great influence but no power. The best advice she has been given is from the midwife who helped deliver her, who tells her, “Trust yourself. Listen to your stomach. This is all we have.” This advice guides Eleanora as she struggles to find her way through a morass of political upheaval and the force of history. This is a beautiful, whimsical book, with the research woven deeply into the strands of every sentence. It is as intricate as one of Yakob’s fine carpets. The book is complimented by an exquisite cover (although Michael David Lukas told me, when I met him at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, the birds on the cover are not hoopoes) and lovely endpapers with a map of the empire.
I wanted to end with some grand, evocative sentence like, “The book is as real and enlightening as the glint of sunlight on the Bosphorus,” or, “It stays with you like the taste of honey-drenched pastry,” but I think those don’t do the book justice. This is one of the most beautiful books you will read. Go read it.