Historical Novel Depicts Waning Ottoman Empire’s Turmoil


By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The Winter Thief. By Jenny White
W.W. Norton & Co. 2010. 400 pages
$14.95 (paperback) ISBN: 978-0-393-33884-3

The Winter Thief, the third novel in the Kamil Pasha series by anthropologist Jenny White, is part detective story, part historical novel. Set in the late 1880s in the Ottoman Empire, during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid, it spins a complicated tale that has, at its core, the sultan’s suspicions that a small colony of socialists, who are also Armenian, is planning a coup against the empire.

Gabriel Arti, an Armenian idealist, is indeed the co-founder of a commune, New Concord, in the Choruh Valley, that intends to live by socialist principles. Accompanied reluctantly by his Russian wife, Vera, he is implicated early on in a violent incident that involves the theft of arms from a ship, a violent explosion and a bank robbery. These events set an investigation in motion that involves both Kamil Pasha, the magistrate of Beyoglu, and his sinister counterpart, Vahid, the sultan’s chief of the secret police, who is a closet sado-masochist. The novel explores the complexities of the period by means of a panoply of sharply-etched characters, including Elif, a woman artist, forced to flee her native Macedonia, having lost her husband and son. Now, caught up in fabric of events taking place in Istanbul, she is transformed into a fierce and vengeful being, capable of dressing like a man — and killing like one.

Other important players include Vizier Koraslan, who is most eager to convince the sultan that the Armenians are plotting against him, hoping to arouse a counterattack that will stimulate western sympathies and bring the British and the Russians to their side; Omar, the police chief of Istanbul, who eventually partners with Kamil to defend the Armenians and Feride, sister of Kamil, who is married to Huseyin, a pasha, who also becomes sympathetic to the Armenians.

White paints a canvas rife with confusion. At times, the Armenians are called socialists, revolutionaries or nationalists and the Henchak Armenians are a target of particular suspicion regarding their disloyalty to the sultan. The story also paints a portrait of desperate men, vying for power and favor in what are to be the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

The novel contains several romantic subplots. Feride suspects that Huseyin is conducting an adulterous affair with another woman, Rhea. Vera, although married to Gabriel, is deeply attracted to another socialist idealist, Apollo, an Armenian friend from childhood, who seems more sympathetic than her husband, who thinks only of his cause.

There is a great deal of action in the novel, descriptions of rape, torture, battles and killing. Kamil, who is accused by the vizier of having masterminded the theft of guns and the robbery at the bank, is sent by the sultan to investigate the Armenian commune. But, he is then persuaded by the vizier to unleash an attack on it led by Kurdish mercenaries.

Kamil and his Armenian cohorts are able to repel it with the aid of some Ottoman gendarmes who remains loyal to him, although there is great loss of life and the survivors become refugees who must be taken back to Trabzon.

Amazingly, Kamil is rewarded by the sultan, who realizes that his vizier has been lying to him. He bestows upon Kamil the High Order of Honor and also a yali (villa) on the Bosphorus.

The novel is sometimes confusing, but then it is describing confusing times. And there are passages where plot elements are suddenly explained so quickly by the author that the reader must be exceedingly vigilant to catch all the twists and turns.

Readers can enjoy this novel for its cultural and historical accuracy. The author, Jenny White, is a professor of anthropology at Boston University, specializing in Turkey. She possesses a detailed command of Armenian and Ottoman cultures, customs, food and protocol that lend the novel a believable authenticity.

As her protagonist, Kamil Pasha, is alive and well at the end of the story, it seems likely that another volume in the series may follow. As a character, he seems ready for further definition.

Near the end of the novel, he muses, “He had come face-to-face with an evil greater than lying, stealing, betrayal, or even, he thought wonderingly, murder. Three months ago, he would have argued on principle that one life was worth the same as many. Every unnecessary death, every killing equally reprehensible. But that was before New Concord, before so many innocents had been trodden underfoot. Hundreds of people killed and for what — as fodder for men’s ambitions. Whether that man was Vahid or Gabriel was immaterial. Or Kamil himself. Now he was being honored for all of it, he thought with despair — for his treason, theft, deception, subverting the army and killing the sultan’s men, and for the loss of hundreds of lives that he had set out with hubris and naiveté to save, but had failed to do so. He had compromised everything he believed in and failed.”

This is a man for whom life still holds some adventures.

For more information on the author and her work, visit www.kamilpasha.com.