Review: To Save an Empire: A Novel of Ottoman History, Allan R. Gall
By Luke Frostick
Abdulhamid II is to this day a character who has a controversial place in the cultural and political landscape of Turkey. He is remembered by conservatives as a man to be emulated, the last great sultan to stand up to the colonial powers and keep the empire strong. However, liberals and Kemelists look at him as an example of everything wrong with the Ottoman system because of the dictatorial authority he wielded and resistance to democratic change in the Empire. One thing can be said though is that he, unlike the other late sultans (seriously who gives a fuck about Abdülmecid I), was able to control the rapidly fracturing Empire and keep the western powers at bay. That, and the controversy surrounding the methods he employed, certainly makes him a character worthy of devoting a novel to. Allan R. Gall does just that in his book To Save an Empire.
One of the challenges for a writer of historic fiction is finding structure in the disorderly mess that history tends to be. The real world has a habit of not fitting a hero’s journey particularly well, Gall wisely choses to focus on the rivalry between Abdulhamid II and Ahmed Şefik Midhat Pasha an Ottoman governor and statesman. There is an interesting dynamic at play between the two. They both want to save the Ottoman Empire but Midhat Pasha’s belief was that only by moving towards a constitutional monarchy could the empire survive, while Abdul Hamid II’s approach was a reversion to the absolutist sultans of the past. This plot plays out through the corse of the book along with a supporting cast of other characters with their own subplots to give a sense of Istanbul life in the period. The book focuses on the early period of his reign and the war against the Russians.
The events of the story are well realised though the plot is, at times, a little over heavy on the exposition and in the early phases of the book there was a lot of showing rather than telling. This is, in part, because the book is ambitious. It is trying to juggle a lot of different themes pertinent to the late empire, including the ethnically diverse nature of the Ottoman Empire and tensions that this inevitably stirs up, the tug of war between reformers and traditionalist, and the meddling of the western powers and the diplomacy of the day. This has the effect that, while the main plot is resolved nicely, some of the subplots feel extraneous picked up and then dropped again without much purpose. although the do give a nice flavour of Istanbul life at the time. Overall, these don’t detract too much as the plot moves on at a quick enough pace to not drag and with enough detail to satisfy. I particularly enjoyed the battles in the middle sections of the books against the Russians. They had a ‘war is hell’ vibe that I liked and ominously foreshadow the modern war that would be the early 20th centuries’ legacy.
In my option, the gold standard for historic fiction is Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. What makes her work stand out is the way that she really take the reader behind the feelings of her characters. She is able to make the though processes and consciousness of her characters, who lived in a very different world from the one we find ourselves in today, feel relatable to her readers without sacrificing their historic context. Gall makes a heathy stab at this and for the most part succeeds. I particularly felt that Abdulhamid II came across as a believable character with contradictions and flaws that made him fascinating to read. The contradiction at the heart of the character is explored in detail. Despite the fact that he is sultan and theoretically the all-powerful ruler he constantly feels that he is out of control driven by world economics, and the political machinations of Britain and Russia, while, being unable to defend the empire from Russian armies, prevent spies at home, or even bring an end to the inter-religious atrocities being carried out in lands ostensibly within his borders.
I enjoyed this book. It’s not perfect, but I learnt a lot and had fun doing it. You can’t ask much more than that.
You can find the book here