My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A delightful novel about a High Anglican attempt to reclaim "the abandoned places of empire". The narrator Laurie and her (her sex is unclear until near the end of the story) aunt Dot, together with her aunt's Anglo-Catholic chaplain Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, set out for Trebizond, the site of the last Roman empire, with a camel. They are joined by a Turkish feminist who they hope will help to liberate oppressed Turkish women by converting them to High Anglicanism.
They meet interesting people, including other British travellers writing Turkey books, and eventually Laurie's friends go their separate ways, leaving her with the camel, and rather short of cash. She has begun to doubt the sanity of the camel. But eventually crosses Turkey and travels through much of the Levant with it.
I've just finished reading it for the third time, but as the first time was nearly fifty years ago, and the second time about thirty years ago, I'd forgotten much of the story. But in the intervening time I've learnt quite a bit more about the places visited by the characters in the novel, and some of their history. William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain covers much of the same ground, and also gives some of the history of the places, and so reading it a third time made some of the obscurer bits come to life.
It is all interspersed with the protagonist's observations of people, and thoughts about life, the universe and everything, which are sometimes funny and sometimes bitter-sweet sad. Much of this is semi-autobiographical, because, like Laurie in the story, Rose Macaulay was herself torn between the Christian faith and adultery.
Another interesting thing about reading it again after fifty years is that the world has changed and the Christian church has changed, or at least the Anglican Church that the main characters belong to. I can read other books of the same vintage, such as The Dharma bums by Jack Kerouac and scarcely be aware that more than fify years have passed since the book was written. But in The towers of Trebizond one is far more aware of the changes. Travellers in the Levant needed two passports, one for Israel and one for everywhere else. The Six-Day War had not taken place, and much of Jerusalem was not in Israel. And on the eastern border of Turkey was the USSR, or the U.S.S.R., as they wrote it in those days, with the Cold War in full swing. It was a world in which Islamophobia wasn't even thought of, and perhaps the word itself had not been invented yet.
The church scene was even more different. For the Roman Catholic Church, Vatican II lay in the future, while the Anglicans have changed in ways too numerous to mention. This can be seen in a conversation between Aunt Dot and a Roman Catholic, where Aunt Dot is saying that Roman Catholics could at least be polite in Anglican churches, even if they don't believe they have the Mass, altars, or real priests.
Aunt Dot ended by saying that even if we had no altars and no Blessed Sacrament on them, it would only be polite of outsiders to bow where we thought we had them, especially at Requiem and Nuptial Masses, and also to join in the Creed and the Lord's Prayer at christenings instead of shutting the mouth tight as if afraid of infection, which looked so unchristian and stuck up.There is just so much in that conversation that would be quite unimaginable today.
"I suppose," said Aunt Dot, "you would walk into a mosque with your shoes on," which was not really fair, as Roman Catholics do take off their hats in Anglican churches, and even, I think, in dissenting ones.
"And I suppose you," said the Roman Catholic, "would, if you had been an early Christian, have offered a pinch of incense to Diana, out of politeness to the pagans."
So they left the subject and played croquet, which is a very good game for people who are annoyed with one another, giving many opportunities for venting rancour.
One of the more amusing parts is where Laurie, left on her own, and unable to speak Turkish, memorises some phrases from a phrasebook, and one that she uses frequently, "I do not understand Turkish," seems to produce strange reactions in the hearers. It was some time before she realised she had copied the Turkish for the wrong phrase in the phrase book, and that what she had been telling people was "Please would you telephone immediately to Mr Yorum."
The thing that persuaded me to reread the book this time was the curious desire, expressed by advocates of the "New Monasticism", to "relocate to the abandoned places of empire", in conjunction with a report of the Divine Liturgy being celebrated, for the first time in 88 years, in an abandoned monastery near Trabzon, the Turkish name for Trebizond. Though it wasn't Anglican, that seemed, in a way, the fulfilment of the vision of Aunt Dot and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, and in a photo of the monastery, the scenery was spectacular. I blogged about it at Reclaiming the Abandoned places of Empire | Khanya, and, in a more general sense, at Notes from underground: Abandoned places of empire. And for that, it seemed that it might be worth reading the book again.
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