ISTANBUL, Turkey — It begins with the image of a man placing a soft-boiled egg in his mouth. He sits without chewing, eyes lowered, until the egg is gone.
“It was not until I was in my 20s that I understood. Anticipation is the brilliant goad to pleasure,” writes professor-turned-mystery-writer Jenny White in the “The Sultan's Seal.”
One day, while walking along the Bosporus — Turkey’s famed waterway that forms the boundary between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul — this image of the slowly savored egg appeared to White, word-for-word in a flash if inspiration. So began the first of her series of crime novels set in the dying Ottoman Empire.
With her newest novel, “The Winter Thief” just out, White sat down with GlobalPost to talk about the tension between fiction and reality, why her use of Armenian characters may mean her book never appears in Turkish and the lessons the dying Ottoman Empire held for today's Turkey.
In a culture that puts a premium on loyalty to the state, White’s determined protagonist is Special Prosecutor Kamil Pasha, a magistrate of the 1888 Ottoman Empire torn between his devotion to the Sultan and his honor.
“The Winter Thief” opens with the scene of a beautiful woman carrying The Communist Manifesto in Armenian through the streets of Istanbul, unaware of the men following her. A bank robbery and cache of illegal weapons soon bring Kamil Pasha on the case, and pit him against a dangerous enemy: Vahid, head of a special branch of the secret police, who has convinced the sultan that an Armenian commune is leading a secessionist movement and should be destroyed, along with surrounding villages. Kamil must stop the massacre, but finds himself framed for murder and accused of treason, with the lives of his family and the woman he loves in danger.
“What happens when your duty to the law contradicts your own moral belief? Do you choose the law or yourself?” White said. “You have to make a choice, even if that choice destroys you.”A professor of anthropology at Boston University and a Turkey specialist, White masterfully forces her characters to make moral decisions in seemingly impossible circumstances.
This tension between self-preservation and ethical behavior is a fundamental dilemma, and one that White believes Turkey is facing today.
“You have secularists who feel that loyalty to the state is more important than anything,” White said. “They are placed in a moral quandary between their support of civic rights and their fear of what that could mean for the country. They are afraid of Turkey turning into Iran, afraid of Turkey disappearing, afraid of Turkey losing its sense of identity.”
The questions Kamil Pasha faces may have a difference face — loyalty to the Sultan, or loyalty to the state — but this fear of a changing political landscape will likely resonate with those familiar with Turkey today. And in the end, Kamil Pasha’s battles may hold some surprising lessons for those on both sides of the fight.
White takes Kamil Pasha into every nook and cranny of this ancient city, from the bustle and chaos of the Eminonu pier to a nighttime passage across dark waters to Uskudar, as much a tollbooth for the Bosphorus then as it is today.
Her knowledge of the city — White has been traveling to Istanbul since the 1970s — make the scenes of veiled women, bad hospitals and narrow passageways come alive, while the depth of her historical knowledge keeps them accurate.
“I choose the 1880s because it was a kind of in-between period, a time of turbulence but before the explosive end of the Ottoman Empire,” White said. “Things were changing, but no one knew in which direction, so it was a time of questions, a time of experimentation.”
The title comes from ancient Armenian mythology, which called the Milky Way the "Straw Thief's Way.” According to legend, the god Vahagn stole a straw from the Assyrian king Barsham and brought it to Armenia during a cold winter. When he fled across the heavens, he fell and the straw spilled across the sky.
“What kind of god is that? A fumbling god? For me it’s a metaphor for those who hold good intentions but are plagued by their own ineptitude,” White said.
In her story, it is a group of Armenian communists intent on setting up a utopian community whose naivete and incompetence ultimately lead to death and destruction. But while her portrayal of both Turks and Armenians throughout the book is subtle and varied, leaving neither party wholly marked by guilt or innocence, White worries about how the role of Armenian characters in her book might be interpreted by a skeptical Turkish populace.
“I hope that Turks will read my book and form their own opinions,” White said. “But I worry that the fact that I have Armenian characters in dominant roles may mean that the book never makes it to a Turkish translation. There is so much history there.”