cover image On the Back of the Tiger

On the Back of the Tiger

Zülfü Livaneli, trans. from the Turkish by Brendan Freely. Other Press, $17.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-63542-391-4

Livaneli (Disquiet) offers a comprehensive if stilted tale of Abdülhamid II (1872–1918), the deposed sultan of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The year is 1909 and the sultan is under house arrest in his mansion in Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki). Much diminished in health, he’s tended to by army doctor Atif Hüseyin, a spy sent to keep tabs on him. Atif keeps notes on Abdülhamid’s stories, which cover his childhood and 33-year reign, and over their nearly four years together, Atif comes to appreciate Abdülhamid as a complicated man capable of forward-thinking, despite having ruled as a despot. The narrative’s highlights include a lavish official trip Abdülhamid and his brother take to Paris with their uncle, Sultan Abdülaziz, when the two young princes are in their 20s, and the thrilling denouement, in which Abdülhamid is rescued from Salonica as it falls to Greece and returned to Istanbul by sea. Unfortunately, the frequent repetition of certain details wears on the reader, as does the unnatural expository dialogue. Ottoman history buffs might want to check this out, but it has scant appeal for the general reader. (June)