Istan­bul Was a Fairy Tale

Mario Levi; Ender Gürol, trans.
  • Review
By – December 17, 2012

This high­ly lit­er­ary, lyri­cal work tells the sto­ries of the mem­bers of three gen­er­a­tions of one fam­i­ly and the notable peo­ple they encounter, all of whom share a com­mon con­nec­tion to the city of Istan­bul. The wide cast of char­ac­ters’ inter­twined lives flow one into the next as the nar­ra­tor chron­i­cles their meet­ings, part­ings, love affairs, inter­minable soli­tudes, and deaths among the set pieces of an irrecov­er­able past: old films and plays, sooth­ing music and home­made meals, bustling cafes and the dusty work­shops of old world arti­sans. Per­me­at­ing the nov­el is a sense of mourn­ing for things lost — whether due to per­son­al tragedy, his­tor­i­cal events, or the per­sis­tent for­ward motion of the world. Past, present, and future merge togeth­er, inform­ing one anoth­er, inex­tri­ca­ble.

The nar­ra­tor sug­gests that the book need not be read from cov­er to cov­er, and instead encour­ages his read­ers to dip in where they like, col­lect what they will, and flip to anoth­er por­tion of the nar­ra­tive at whim. Read­ing in the usu­al front-to-end fash­ion is still like flip­ping through a pho­to album full of dis­joint­ed images of strangers. Short blurbs toward the begin­ning of the nov­el sum up the char­ac­ters’ iden­ti­ties, and though this list seems to be meant as a resource for read­ers, it may not be straight­for­ward enough to help any­one turn­ing to it for ref­er­ence. Read­ers may find it tedious to keep track of all the names, and once one’s bear­ings are lost with­in this nov­el, they are dif­fi­cult to regain. It is equal­ly easy to feel adrift in time and space with few clear nar­ra­tive clues to aid the con­struc­tion of a sense of chronol­o­gy from the non-lin­ear prose.

Char­ac­ters’ sto­ries often serve as jump­ing-off points for long philo­soph­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. Dense and diver­gent as these pas­sages can be, they are where the beau­ty of the nov­el lies, replete with poignant, wrench­ing sen­tences. The nar­ra­tor broods on the nature of soli­tude, of truth and lies, on the cre­ation of sto­ry, on the pur­pose of self-decep­tion, on the bar­ri­ers of dis­tance and lan­guage, on mem­o­ry, fan­ta­sy, nos­tal­gia, the known and unknow­able. The elo­quence and insights of these remarks on human exis­tence make Istan­bul Was a Fairy Tale a quotable, thought-pro­vok­ing dis­cus­sion-starter.

As uni­ver­sal as the nov­el­’s mes­sages are, the specifics are key. Judaism informs the char­ac­ters’ lives and their con­nec­tions to each oth­er in sub­tle ways, and of course, plays a vital part in shap­ing their expe­ri­ence of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Europe. By neces­si­ty and by choice, many become wan­der­ing trav­el­ers who relo­cate around the globe. Cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty and reli­gious adher­ence inter­sect with nation­al iden­ti­ty and lan­guage to shape feel­ings of belong­ing or estrange­ment.

Though of def­i­nite lit­er­ary inter­est, at over 650 pages of recon­dite prose arranged in pro­tract­ed para­graphs, Istan­bul Was a Fairy Tale will be a strug­gle for most. For the patient, per­se­ver­ant read­er who is will­ing to give this nov­el the time and close atten­tion it demands, it has the mak­ings of a reward­ing read.

Discussion Questions