Thursday, 10 October 2013

If you’ve ever thought the downward spiral that is your (well, mine at any rate) life absolutely sucked, try Ivan Postivich’s for size. As a very young child, Ivan Postivich was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and forced to abandon his name and religion. He did rise through the ranks of the Ottoman janissaries because of his massive size and physical prowess, but that bit of luck only lasted for a time. All that battlefield glory earned him the wrath of the jealous sultan and so he was demoted to a mere palace guard for Esma, the sultan’s sister. That last bit is the worst, though, because Postivich’s new job has the added bonus of rowing all the Sultane Esma’s lovers to the middle of the Bosphorus river, chaining them up inside a sack, and tossing them over the side. Hence, Ivan Postivich is now known throughout the city as the Drowning Guard. That shitty desk job of yours is starting to look pretty good now, isn’t it? Over time (at least two dozen lovers, if we’re counting), Esma is overcome with guilt for all the deaths she’s caused. She is tortured by nightmares and the imaginary smells of bloated and rotting corpses. Only by telling stories of her childhood to Ivan Postivich is she able to quiet the demons in her mind and so the story begins.
(Fair warning: this gets long. Feelings got in the way.) Please don’t be misled by the terrible cover. It is the only bad thing about The Drowning Guard. This is actually a terrific book marred only by that atrocity on its face, rather like how I am a terrific person, marred only by the atrocity that is my face. At first I was pretty lukewarm about the story and the characters. Yes, the prose was lush and vibrant (adjectives that are so commonly used in stories about the Ottoman empire. Now I feel like I cheated a little) -- when Lafferty describes scenes in the marketplace you really get the feel that it’s a cultural melting pot, with people impatiently shouting at each other and activity spilling over everywhere. There’s also something almost fairy tale-like to the way she narrates her characters, often calling Ivan “the giant” or “the janissary” instead of by his name. And then I got to this part of the story. Scene: It’s the second night Ivan sits with Esma. She’s lounging around like a spoiled queen, baiting him in her carelessly spiteful way. She knows Ivan hates her for the murders she forces him to commit, but she doesn’t care. When he sees one of her hot slave girls walking around with her face on display (outrageous!), he asks why the women of her harem go about unveiled. And she says: 

“A veil is an invention of man to protect what he feels is his property. None of my slaves wear the yasmak; we show our faces to Allah without shame.”

With that, I knew Esma was going to surprise me. I expected that there had to be some sort of backstory to make her that way and figured that a change of heart was inevitable. But what a backstory. Esma does what she does to defy the injustices men inflict daily upon women. In her own way, she exerts her brand of power over man, raging against the fact that as a woman she has no real power except what her brother allows her. She does it to exact revenge upon them for what they did to her best friend -- and maybe in frustration because she knows she is the equal (or more) of any sultan who has ever sat on the throne. She has created her own little world within her palace, the only place in the whole empire where women can feel safe and free to be themselves without punishment. Esma knows how to play the game within the confines of her cage, and skillfully manipulates her own brother to protect those she has taken under her wing. Esma has the biggest heart of all perhaps, and it bleeds for women everywhere. Esma, selfish murderer of men. Esma, holy protector of women. Yes, holy. One of the interesting things about Esma is her devotion to the Koran -- or at least the version of it known as the satanic verses. In it, the Muhammad acknowledges the power of the pagan goddesses of the moon and stars. These verses are not present in the Koran. I get that they may have been removed to strengthen the unified power of Allah, but Esma sees it as man’s denial of woman’s power. In a way, there is a profound belief that fuels her actions. There’s no end to the things I want to say about her. She’s such a fascinating character, with layers and layers of rich motivations covering a fierce core of independence and yearning. Calling her a feminist would barely scratch the surface of her. Ivan poses a fascinating character study himself, constantly caught between things like the hem of a long straggly dress. Though he is introduced to us as a janissary faithful to his adopted religion through and through, over time his impassive facade cracks. He often wheels between his Christian origins and his choice to follow Islamic faith. As a soldier of the empire, he values loyalty to the throne but as a janissary, his independence of spirit is what makes him who he is. He refuses to accept his attraction to the woman who turned him into a murderer, but soon starts to see her as a woman whose motivations he understands and even begins to share. This is fast approaching novel length. I am not even a little bit done, but I’m cutting this short. You don’t have to read all this, but do read The Drowning Guard. Trust me, it’s worth it.


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