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February 17, 2011


Posted by Stephen

Author Michael David Lukas talks about the internationally renown authors and their works that inspired his recently-released debut novel The Oracle of Stamboul. Also, a heavy influence on the novel's development was Lukas' deployment to the Middle East during an unstable time.

stamboul.JPGAfter graduating college in the spring of 2003, I had the good fortune to spend a year in Tunisia. On paper, I was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, studying Arabic and promoting cultural understanding between the United States and the Arab World. It was not, by any account, a particularly good year for promoting understanding. The United States had invaded Iraq just a few months earlier and Arabic satellite news channels were filled with images of the war. I was routinely berated by cab drivers who had no other outlet for their anger. Even my new friends thought I was a spy. Meanwhile, my family and friends at home were emailing frantically, worried about my safety in a city where they imagined al-Qaeda lurking around every corner.

Frustrated with this seemingly unbridgeable divide, I retreated into the trunk of books I had brought along with me. It was during this time that I discovered those writers whose work falls into the subgenre I like to call historical fabulism --- Jose Saramago, Gunter Grass, Salman Rushdie, and Italo Calvino --- storytellers of the old school who add a pinch of magic to the stew of history. I was particularly moved by Saramago’s novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which a bored proofreader literally rewrites the history of Lisbon, and by Grass’s The Tin Drum, in which a clairvoyant young German boy named Oskar Matzerath disrupts the traditional narrative of World War II by beating on a tin drum. How wonderful, I thought, this idea that a single act, a single person, might change the course of history.

It was soon after I finished The Tin Drum, on a run through the undeveloped outskirts of Tunis, that Eleonora Cohen, the protagonist of my yet unwritten novel, first came to me. She was hazy in that first glimpse, a slight, precocious child playing backgammon with two older men. I didn’t know anything about her, but I knew as soon as she came to me that I had found my Oskar. Now, the only thing I had to do was write the book. 

I spent the next few weeks trying in fits and starts to find the voice of the novel and its setting. For a few weeks, Eleonora lived in eighth century Damascus. Then she was in Mamluk Cairo. Eventually, I decided to move the novel to the back burner of my mind and let it simmer unattended. In late May, having thought of her only a few times, I packed Eleonora at the bottom of my bag and said goodbye to Tunisia. I had planned to spend most of June in Uzbekistan, where my ex-girlfriend was in the Peace Corps. However, for reasons I still don’t fully understand (something involving the ministry that she registered my official invitation with), I was turned back at the Tashkent airport and ended up with ten days by myself in Istanbul. It was a twist of fate that would change my life forever.

I had been to Istanbul once before, when I was eighteen. Having already seen the major sites, I spent my days wandering the 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 day there, I decided to visit a few antique stores. At the back of a particularly dusty and cluttered shop, 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 1880s, staring out across history with a laconic, penetrating gaze. When I saw this picture, everything clicked. It made perfect sense. Here was Eleonora. 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.

Six years and six drafts later, The Oracle of Stamboul has finally reached its maturity. It 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.