Review: Sweet Waters, Harold Nicolson
By Luke Frostick
It’s always difficult reading a book about Turkey or indeed any culture written by somebody who is not originally from that culture. Native writers on their own country, in their own language, have an authenticity of voice that is very hard for even the most talented writer to emulate. For me, it often boils down to a question; if I want to read a detective story set in Istanbul would I rather read Barbara Nadel or Ahmet Ümit? As a general rule, if the choice is given to me, I would prefer to read the translated works of native writers than stories sent in far flung places by British or American authors. Moreover, given that more and more translated Turkish fiction is becoming available, including classics and modern writers, it is a choice I increasingly don't have to make.
The exception worth making to the above is when the writer, although not from the country they have chosen to set their novel in, has some unique perspective or was in the country at an interesting time (see Homage to Catalonia for a fantastic example). These were my thoughts when I was first given a copy of Sweet Waters by Harold Nicolson.
The book is set in Istanbul during the Balkan Wars, a delicate time in late Ottoman history when the Bulgarian armies were besieging Edirne (called Adrianople throughout the book) and there was even the possibility that they would get as far as Istanbul itself. What makes Nicolson’s perspective on these events unique is that he was actually there in Istanbul throughout the war, not just as an observer or a grand-touring English man, but as third secretary to the British Embassy.
Sweet Waters is a novelisation of those times, focusing on the British Embassy staff and residents of Istanbul. The plot follows Eirene, a Pera resident of mixed Ottoman Greek and British heritage. She is a young woman starting to move out from under her controlling mother and growing up, which of course means getting married and ideally to an English gentleman. This was after all written in the 1920s. It also follows Hugh Tenterden and Angus Field, two members of the British mission to Constantinople, as they try to navigate the complex diplomatic and political situation while wooing Eirene. Things are at play in Istanbul and all three of them have to deal with the dangerous conspiracies and people around them.
The book's subtitle describes it as an Istanbul thriller, but you never get the feeling that the characters are in any real danger, their armour of being English seems to protect them and the writer can’t quite put them in any believable peril. The only one who gets her share of adventure is Eirene, who starts working in a war hospital as a nurse as the Bulgarian army advances. A situation that may not seem perilous but given the savagery of the Bulgarian army that Nicolson correctly alludes to, she finds herself in real danger. This, however, is to a large extent undermined by the fact that the main reason for her to be in danger is so that the dashing British Gentlemen can swoop in and save her.
The elephant in the room with this book is that it is very much a product of the 1920s in the way it handles gender and race. The female characters are are dated to the point of parody and it doesn't get much better when it comes to talking about the city. Throughout the book one can come across quotes such as
“The Turk had come and fouled it [the district around the little Hagia Sophia] with the squalid figure of the east” (142).
“Organisation. They [Turks] cannot create it for themselves, poor blighters! God has not granted that” (199-200).
Yeah, that uncomfortable sensation you’re feeling now is Edward Said trying to kick you in the stomach from beyond the grave.
In some ways, if you’re saying, “what were you expecting?” that's a fair point. And it is a little easy going back to criticise a work that is very much a product of its time. However, I went into this with the hope that, given the writer’s position and personal connection with the city (although he only lived in Istanbul for a few years), he might have been able to give a more nuanced description of the city and the people than falling back onto into the tired ideas of the British colonial establishment. Ironically, it is idea like these ones in this book would lead the British directly to World War I and the catastrophic lose of life in Gallipoli.
People who live in Turkey have a nostalgia for an idealised golden age that, although unspecified, was not so long ago. I find in Istanbul, people can be more specific in their longing for the turn of the century, thought often a romanticised version of those days when the Europeans ruled Pera, before the Jews and Greeks were forced out of the city, in the dotage of the Empire. If you want an unfiltered taste of those days from the perspective of somebody who was actually there, albeit from a very particular one, is the main reason for reading this book. It does give some interesting glimpses into the lives of the people of Istanbul, the places they lived and lives they led. One of the more interesting episodes in the book is an outing that the characters take to watch the Sultan’s barge going down the Bosphorus to one of his palaces further down.
It has a decent insight into the Europeans living in the city at the time and the way that the diplomatic circles moved and communicated with each other in the days just before World War I. The names of the places throughout the book are written in the Greek, and I personally had quite a lot of fun unpicking them and working out their modern Turkicised versions. Also looking at a map of the Boshporus without the words such as Levent or Mecidiyeköy brought great solace to my soul.
On the other hand, with the exception of a few Ottoman officers and Pashas that serve the plot, it doesn't have much to say about normal people; most of the Kurdish, Greek or Turkish characters are shop keepers or servants of some kind and not worthy, in the characters’ eyes, of much attention.
If you are into Istanbul during the dotage of the Ottoman Empire or the build-up to World War I, or an Istanbul literary completist and can get past some turn-of-the-century orientalism and sexism, then this book might be for you. The plot works, and it kept my interest. It gave just enough of a glimpse into this fascinating city at a fascinating time.
Nicolson, Harold. Sweet Waters. Sickle Moon Books, London: 2000.
You can buy Sweet Waters here.