I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Istros Books. This English version has been translated by John K. Cox.
This latest release from Istros Books is a fictional account of Lord Byron’s tour around parts of the Ottoman Empire in 1809 during which trip he is the guest of a local Albanian ruler, Ali Pasha. The story takes place during a period of two weeks on his travels when Byron is accompanied by a retinue of English servants as well as his good friend John Hobhouse. As they reach the city of Ali Pasha, they are greeted by a severed arm that is hanging from a tree and being slowly eaten by birds of prey. There is an undercurrent of uneasiness throughout their stay in Yannina as they immediately understand that the political and social landscape of The Ottoman Empire is very different from England.
When Byron and his retinue arrive in Yannina, Ali Pasha is not at his palace because he is off in the north fending off one of his enemies. So Byron is entertained and shown around the town by a man named Isak, who is a personal doctor of this local despot. Isak has lived all over Europe and his English is quite good so he serves as Byron’s interpreter. He also tells Byron many stories about the Balkans and also educates him about Eastern European customs. The most important lesson Isak teaches Byron is about the Balkan words Dert and Sevdah, which mean a yearning and a craving desire, love and passion. In the Balkans there is a woman born once every three hundred years, Isak tells him, who are known for their beauty throughout the Empire. Men feel Dert and Sevdah if they are lucky enough to set their eyes on one these beauties who are usually hidden by their families until they are given away to a Prince for marriage.
One such woman, whose name is Zuleiha, is rumored to be in the vicinity of Yannina. Isak starts acting very strangely when he hears this rumor and he disappears for long periods of time in an attempt to get information on her whereabouts. Byron listens to Isak’s story about this beautiful woman, but to him it is just a story, just a myth, until Byron sets eyes on Zuleiha himself.
It is apparent that Ali Pasha will not make it home in time to greet his British guest, so he invites them to his palace in the north. Byron and his fellow travelers are accompanied by Isak on a long, arduous journey during the rainy season through the Balkans. The rain is so intense at one point that they have to take shelter in a cave and then in a han, which is the Balkan word for hotel. It is at this han that Byron gets a glimpse at the rare beauty of Zuleiha. Byron is instantly smitten with her and at the sight of this woman he fully comprehends the meanings of Dert and Sevdah.
The exciting culmination of the book deals with Byron’s crazy plan to win Zuleiha as his wife. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire story which, although brief, brought to life the personal details about this famous English poet. We experience the fascinating mythology, cultural and landscape of the Balkans through Byron’s point-of-view and we better understand its influence on Byron’s writings. When I was reading this book the image of Byron in his elaborate Albanian costume, which in the book is given to him as a gift, kept coming to mind.
About the Author:
Muharem Bazdulj, born in 1977, is one of the leading writers of the younger generation to appear in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. He writes in a wide variety of genres, including novels, short stories, poetry, and essays; he is also active as a journalist and a translator. Bazdulj’s work has been published `Best European Fiction 2012´ (Ed. Aleksandar Hemon, Dalkey Archive Press) alongside Milan Kundera, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Vladimir Sorokin, Victor Pelevin, Péter Esterházy and Andrzej Stasiuk. Short stories and essays in `World Literature Today´, `Creative Nonfiction´, `Habitus´, `Absinthe´ etc.Translations:One of his short story collections has appeared in English (The Second Book, Northwestern University Press, 2005). Bazdulj is the author of nine books in all, including his most recent set of stories, Magic. He currently lives in Travnik and Sarajevo. – See more at: http://istrosbooks.com/products/authors/muharem-bazdulj-68/#sthash.xWNOQwUS.dpuf