No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

2011/22: The Dervish House -- Ian McDonald

"...it all began with this woman in Ereğli who started to see into souls and tell fortunes: the peri were whispering it to her, apparently. Then there's this businessman in Nevbahar: he's very interesting, very up to day; it's not fairies or djinn; it's robots. Those swarm-robots that build up into all kinds of different robots. But at some level it's the same; he finds lost things and gives prophecies." (location 4648, Kindle doesn't give me page number)

The Dervish House takes place over five days in Istanbul, summer 2027, soon after Turkey's admittance to the EU. The novel's six protagonists, all living in or near the eponymous Adem Dede 'dervish house', react to an apparent suicide-bombing on the local tramline. That bombing kick-starts a chain of events that feature djinn, nanobots, microcalligraphy, junk DNA, terrorism-trading, energy scams, family ties, the Green Saint and a Mellified Man.

The six protagonists -- ranging from nine-year-old Can Durukan to elderly Georgios Ferentinou -- are distinct voices, each with his or her own concerns and preoccupations. It took me a while to crystallise the thought that each protagonist's thread typifies a different genre, as well as a different perspective. There's a Dan Brown-style treasure hunt; a Boy Detective with his trusty sidekick(s); a country girl making good; a romantic tale of lost love and betrayal; a fast-paced techno-thriller with cyberpunk overtones; and a young man who comes out of the fire and experiences redemption and revelation.

The joy of The Dervish House, for me, is in how intimately connected the different threads are. The connections aren't always clear -- not least to the protagonists, whose brains aren't wired to recognise what's happening around them -- but everywhere there are patterns within patterns, and everything converges towards a denouement that is as much beginning and middle as ending.

It's an incredibly complex book, lush and sometimes overwhelming with texture and detail: McDonald's prose is rich and precise, and he's got the gift of encapsulating a moment, a character, a cityscape in one sentence. (Adem Dede Square is "small enough for two tea shops but big enough for rivalries": Leyla's family "gave her gold and had their eyes closed in every single photograph".) It's a novel about Istanbul, a city poised at the interface of Europe and Asia. It's also 'about' economics and trade; about the ways that history interpenetrates and defines the present and the future; about patterns, and how the human brain can see them.

Though The Dervish House addresses some of the same themes, and features some of the same entities, as Brasyl and River of Gods, it stands alone , and it's a very different novel, reflecting the ambience of the culture in which it's set. And now I want to go to Istanbul ...

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