The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
Reviewed by Nic Clarke
18 October 2010
When the latest Ian McDonald novel came to me for review, more or less the last thing I expected to be pondering as I read was a certain stylistic parallel to Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic duology. Both works are, it's true, set in imagined versions of the same city: Kay's is a fantasy take on Justinianic Constantinople where ghostly fire plays in the streets, McDonald's is a bustling near-future Istanbul on the verge of a nanotech revolution. But of all the writers working in the SF/fantasy field today, they are hardly an obvious pairing; the precisely measured phrasings, heavy foreshadowing and high emotionalism of the former finds few echoes in the hectic, jump-cut information saturation of the latter. One is inclined to pare back, the other to turn the volume up:
It is the hour of prayer but not yet the hour of money. Istanbul, Queen of Cities, wakes with a shout. There is a brassy top note to the early traffic, the shrill of gas engines. Midnotes from taxis and dolmuşes, the trams on their lines and tunnels, the trains in their deeper diggings through the fault zones beneath the Bosphorus. From the Strait comes the bass note of heavy shipping [ . . . ] The throb of marine engines is the heartbeat of Istanbul. (p. 4)
It is the sort of writing we have learned to expect from McDonald, in novels such as River of Gods (2004) and Brasyl (2007): fast, layered, but couched in inventive imagery that makes a cityscape seem unitary; it may begin with a "shout", but as the description proceeds from "brassy top note" through "midnotes" to the "bass", the cacophony we initially expect gives way to something that is, if not quite harmonious, then certainly rhythmic. At longer length it can be dizzying, an assault on the (imaginary) senses, but it has a purpose beyond prose pyrotechnics, turning location from backdrop to an integral part of story and theme.
The analogy—of structure emerging where there seemed to be only randomness—may be extended to The Dervish House as a whole. The story centres on an old tekke—a ramshackle former Mevlevi Sufi lodge that has fallen into disuse but retains "an architecture that commanded whispers" and a garden that "contained a universe" (p. 13)—and the people who live around it in Adem Dede Square. The Square is "small enough for two tea shops but big enough for rivalries" (p. 20; for all his love of extravagant descriptive passages, McDonald also has a way with the thumbnail sketch), and its inhabitants are variously Turkish and Greek, Christian and Muslim, lifelong urbanites and rural newcomers sucked into the centre of economic and cultural gravity that is Istanbul.
Set in 2027, five years after Turkey has joined the European Union, the novel is told over five days, and split into five corresponding chapters. The chapters in turn are made up of multiple short sections, each rarely more than five or six pages long, that rotate between the viewpoints of six different inhabitants of Adem Dede Square. The first day begins as one character, directionless Necdet, is caught up in an apparent terrorist attack on a commuter train, and promptly flees, afraid that his presence at the scene will somehow bring down trouble on the young men's prayer group his pious brother has recently started in the tekke. Necdet's flight is watched by Can Durukan, a boy "as acute and weird as a bat" (p. 15) whose rare heart condition means he is kept cocooned against noise in an anxiety-ridden family apartment in the Square, and who has found alternative ways to experience the world through his computer and his robots. Can sneaks out of home to confide what he has seen in Georgios Ferentinou, an unvoluntarily retired Greek lecturer in economics with a past in radical politics and a specialism in unlikely events and strange chains of contingencies. Meanwhile, in the traffic-jammed aftermath of the explosion, recent graduate Leyla Gültaşli spends the last of her money failing to reach a job interview in time.
At first the connections between the characters' storylines, beyond their shared neighbourhood, are infrequent and largely coincidental. The explosive opening generates some momentum, but for a while it all makes for a slow and disorientating—even frustrating—reading experience: discursive, episodic, random. Gradually, however, structure emerges.
For Ayşe Erkoç, the structure is provided by art. She runs a shop in Adem Dede Square, where she deals in religious art—some of it of questionable provenance, earning her the opprobrium of the Square's more fastidious inhabitants, and the nickname "That Woman" (p. 20). Although Ayşe is less flamboyant and more (or more expensively) educated, there are shades of Brasyl's Marcellina Hoffman in her adventurous self-reliance and tenacious inability to give up on a mission. Both of them are smart and capable women in societies where unspoken gender hierarchies have yet to fully topple, who have had to fight hard for the success and respect they enjoy in conventionally, even aggressively masculine spheres. Yet even this is not quite enough; it is impossible to shake the feeling that Ayşe's husband, Adnan Sarioğlu, indulges Ayşe's career more than he either understands or appreciates her passion for it, and while he adores her in his own way, it is with paternalistic condescension, and no interest in what she has lost, that he comes to her aid late on in the book.
In what is probably the only plotline to have a beginning, middle, and end that take place entirely within the novel, Ayşe is approached for help in tracking down a centuries-old "mellified man". According to legend (Chinese stories about Arabia), a mellified man was a human corpse sealed in a tomb filled with honey, and imbued thereby with marvellous medicinal properties. The idea sends McDonald off on a flight of typically extravagant invention: a long flashback, narrated in the second person, of the man in question preparing for his embalming, in the traditional fashion of, well, eating all the honey he possibly can:
In the third week of your transfiguration you explore honeys of theft and peril: wild acacia honey of the savage hives of Africa, where the foragers have grown immune to stings that would kill lesser men; honey from the Sundarbans of Bengal, where tigers stalk the hive-hunters in the mangrove forests; the carob honeys from the bazaars of Fes, stolen in the high Atlas from legendary hives the size of houses. (p. 46)
The process turns him into "the empire's greatest connoisseur of honey", leaving him "swimming in golden sugar hallucinations" and physically transformed:
Your urine is as sweet as a confection, your excrement a soft amber unguent. Honey permeates every vessel of your body; honey swaddles your organs and drips in oozing globules through the spaces of your brain. (p. 46)
Unable to resist such an outlandish challenge, Ayşe accepts. Her quest for the mellified man leads her, and us, through the layers of Istanbul's history and the tangled strands of its connections with the worlds to the east and west (and, for that matter, to the north and south). Her helpers are an eccentric bunch. There is Selma Özgün, "urbomancer", who walks the streets of Istanbul charting "how history was attracted to certain locations in layer upon layer of impacted lives in a cartography of meaning" (pp. 105-6) to learn "'the beautiful lies that make up this city'" (p. 108). There is Red the fisherman and his mesmerising monologue on where the mellified man might have disappeared to, a set of elaborate—and, for this historian, exhilarating—theories woven through centuries of traders and conquerors and Sufi orders in the Balkans. Even a bookshop Ayşe visits is a mnemonic in stone and wood and paper of Istanbul's past, with a "nineteenth-century Ottoman frontage" that "opens onto part of an arcade from early post-Conquest" and "a Byzantine-era vault" (p. 185). Gradually, her quest leads her from the broad sweep of Eurasian history down to patterns in the very smallest of things:
Heart pounding, Ayşe swoops around the tiled interior. Tree of Life motifs blossom over niches lined with floral tiles. Above each door is a panel of calligraphic Iznik tiling, gold on blue. This is the only writing. Ayşe focuses on a word, clicks in, refocuses, clicks in; in on the letter, in in. She can't breathe. Each letter is made up of minute individual letters. The resolution is just enough to show the letters are distinct from each other, but Ayşe does not doubt that each letter contains the working of the entire panel in micrography. Fractal geometry. The great composed of the small. (p. 206)
Another story that stretches back into the tangled history of Istanbul links Ayşe to fellow Dervish house resident Leyla Gültaşli. One of the artworks that passes through Ayşe's hands in the course of the week is an exquisite miniature Qurʾān, or rather half of one; the tale goes that it was cut up so that one half could be sent with a son to war, and the other kept at home to ensure his return. Introduced to the novel through Ayşe, it then becomes part of Leyla's storyline.
Leyla is an ambitious young woman who moved to Istanbul from Demre, on Turkey's southern coast (home of Santa Claus, fact fans), to study business, and escape. Her degree over, she is desperate to find the job that will keep her in Istanbul and independence, unwilling to be sucked back home to the provinces and a life of tomato-growing. There is poignancy in her recollection of her parents' bewildered visit to the big city for her graduation ("Her mother clung to her father throughout the event [ . . . ] They gave her gold and had their eyes closed in every single photograph", p. 38), but Leyla longs to be her own person. Yet "family pulls and family ties and family binds" (p. 120), and the missed job interview at the start of the novel leaves her with no option but to accept a role helping one of her relatives, Yaşar, drum up the capital he needs to start a business. The nanotech that Yaşar and his associate Aso have developed, we're told, "turns every cell in the body into a computer", offering "the ability to store every piece of information they'll amass in their entire lives" (p. 130). In a novel where the city's memories are inscribed in its stones, and where micrography plays such a significant revelatory role in Ayşe's storyline, the thematic parallel is clear.
This big science fictional leap forward never materialises, at least during the five days charted by the book; it isn't the story McDonald wants to tell. Instead, the focus, here as elsewhere, is on coincidence, contingency, and the way random conjunctions of events echo through so many lives. Leyla's search for funding—whether by reuniting the two halves of the tiny Qurʾān, or getting a big investor interested—falls foul, again and again, of the vagaries of chance and the increasingly entwined stories. Leyla, for instance, has the misfortune to pitch Yaşar and Aso's project to the very same corporation that Ayşe's husband Adnan Sarioğlu and his friends are plotting to bring down in an audacious piece of stock market manipulation. The stock market is, of course, another way of structuring the world, one in which vast swathes of data are encoded in the shorthand of insiders—an essentially artificial system that amateurs and experts alike seek to use to manipulate the real world.
Further efforts to explain Istanbul and systematise the forces that act upon it are seen through the eyes of Georgios Ferentinou, a former economist who becomes involved in a government think tank entirely devoted to discussing contingency and patterns. Along with the urbomancer Selma, a science fiction writer, and an assortment of physicists, historians, and others, Ferentinou's job is to debate the possible impact upon the city of ever more outlandish chains of imaginary events.
(Art turns up again, here: Ferentinou and the rest are entertained at lavish palaces to money and bad taste as a result, and his comment on the kitsch imitation of European art that adorn one building's walls—"They are rendered as one might expect in a culture with no tradition of figure painting" (p. 112)—hits on a pet hate. The statement might be intended to express a Greek Christian's disdain for the Turks, but it is nonetheless an odd comment from someone who has lived his whole life in Istanbul. That Islamic art has no figural representation is a common misconception, but one that can be dispelled in a matter of keystrokes. Both historically—in book painting, interior design, garden furniture and objets d'art—and in the present day, Islam is not all about geometric patterns. Although frankly, when you're producing buildings this beautiful, who needs figural representation anyway?)
Of all the stories, though, Ferentinou's is the one that feels the least developed—perhaps in part because much of it happened in the past—and most tangential to the overall plot. It only really comes alive when he is interacting with Can, whose boy detective routine Ferentinou encourages—against his better judgement and his friends' advice—for the sake of the company and, ultimately, because he realises that the boy is on to something serious: the slow transformation—or descent into madness—of Necdet, and the fact that Can is far from the only one watching him.
Necdet has been having visions, which he believes are djinn, ever since the terrorist attack. Some are benign (of al-Khidr, the green saint linked in Islamic scripture and literature with Moses and Alexander, who encourages him to change his severely messed-up life) and others more disturbing ("Burning babies, faces in computer screens, tiny flying people with very long legs", and what emphysema "would look like if it was a living person", p. 216).
It is when Necdet's djinn start to attract wider attention, and Adnan's corporate espionage reaches tipping point, that the book really kicks into gear. With a kidnapping, the threat of another terrorist attack, and one character falling victim to a police sting, the pace and tension promised by the opening return in force, lending the compulsive air of a thriller to proceedings. The gradual winding together of the various plot strands—the different ways each character contributes to the climax and is left standing in the fallout—is nothing short of masterly. The effect, in fact, is something like a mosaic, those assemblages of glass and stone whose coherence as images is much more evident when viewed from a distance than up close. It was this that put me in mind of Guy Gavriel Kay, and specifically a comment he made about the lengthy prologue of Sailing to Sarantium:
The Prologue was an ambitious attempt to achieve two things. One was to evoke the technique of mosaic in prose. Mosaic (unlike painting, most of the time) works off juxtapositions of contrasting colors to create the illusion of a given color. I wanted the Prologue to hurl the reader into a colorful chaos, characters from all walks of life getting a few pages (or less) then giving way to someone entirely different and an entirely different mood, and then appearing and disappearing again. A mosaic of the City.
The tesserae of a mosaic derive meaning from what they are placed beside, from contrasts of colour and texture; only together do they describe form and movement, light and shade. So it is with The Dervish House. McDonald's Istanbul is one giant mosaic, made up of disparate pieces from so many peoples and histories set side by side that it is almost impossible to make sense of when you're in the midst of it. The novel's threads, the triumphs and crises of its characters' lives, parallel and contrast with each other even as they resolve into many parts of the same shared story. It may not, initially, be as easy a book to fall in love with as River of Gods, but as it all comes together it proves that McDonald's command of nuance, detail, and payoff is second to none.