By the late 1800s, the Ottoman empire had been thriving for almost five hundred years. Founded on even older civilizations—the Byzantines, Greeks, Romans, and, before that, other civilizations not as well known today—it was a truly multiethnic, multidenominational empire. Jews, Armenians, Greek Orthodox Christians, Muslim Turks, Arabs, people of all faiths from the Balkans, European “Franks” and many others mingled in the streets and in households.
It was a period of profound social and political change, when educated and wealthy urbanites were acquiring European customs and technology. Some were interested in European political models, like the parliament. Despite European support for the independence movements that were breaking the empire apart, including the Balkans, Greece, and parts of the Arab world, many young Ottomans like Kamil Pasha admired European political values, science, and ideas about society.
Another European idea, nationalism—the idea that a nation should be organized around the identity of “a people”—began to take root. By contrast, an empire could contain many kinds of people, all keeping their separate identities, since they were united only by virtue of being subjects of the same ruler. Nationalist aspirations led to movements for independence from the Ottoman empire, but also to backlashes and intolerance.
Ottomans worried, with some justification, that nationalism would lead to the purging of minorities. (Minorities were mostly defined in religious terms in those days. Only in the age of nation-states organized around the principles of nationality and nationalism did the term ethnicity come into use, often to refer to a people defined by a shared language.) The spread of nationalism led to population exchanges and expulsions across the region by newly independent states and, eventually, by the Ottoman Empire and its successor in the twentieth century, the Turkish nation-state.
The story of The Abyssinian Proof is set against the background of the nineteenth-century loss of the Ottoman province of Macedonia. Russia conquered it, and then the British brokered an agreement to return it to the Ottoman empire. As a result, the population of Macedonia became divided between various factions, often pitting neighbor against neighbor. Christians turned against Muslims, whom they blamed for Ottoman rule, leading to a great exodus of Muslims, who flooded the streets of the Ottoman capital, Istanbul.
From the Author
I think of writing fiction as taking something that is real and embroidering it, elaborating it, and thereby making it more real, with the idea that a good story is a deeper truth. I believe that every historical upheaval, whether it takes place in Macedonia or Bosnia or Iraq, involves similar moral quandaries that only become visible if you step closer and put the fate of individuals into the frame. For people caught up in the machinery of war, even small decisions have momentous implications. The nature of truth and justice becomes slippery and unreliable, and verities become unclear in ways we can’t even imagine.
In The Abyssinian Proof, both Elif and Kamil have to make life-or-death decisions that lay bare these moral dilemmas. In the novel, historical events take the form of personal tales of tragedy, death, and dislocation, but the book also examines the possibility of love and redemption after living through cataclysmic events.
The novel can be read at many levels. It’s a mystery surrounding a sacred object believed to be extremely powerful, a secret sect devoted to protecting it, and an international ring of antiquities thieves and other unscrupulous people willing to do anything, including murder, to lay their hands on it. It’s also a political thriller about Russian ambitions to spread into Eastern Europe and Britain’s Great Game, as it was called at the time, the British empire’s strategies to stop Russian expansion and enhance its own. While pushing back Russia in Macedonia, Britain extended its own sphere of influence by manipulating rebellions in the Ottoman empire’s Arab provinces. The novel is also an account of the characters’ personal journeys through the territories of love, vengeance, and redemption. And finally, it’s a book about the city of Istanbul itself. Istanbul is a palimpsest, an old parchment written over many, many times, on which you can still make out what is written underneath. Ottoman Istanbul was built on top of Roman Byzantium, and that, in turn, was built on the ruins of Greek civilization. Much of the novel takes place in the Byzantine cisterns and tunnels that form a forgotten labyrinth beneath the city. Beyond the potential for exciting chase scenes, one could see this as a metaphor for the effect history has on individual lives.
- What was Kamil’s attitude toward the assassin Marko? Do you think Marko’s actions were justified? Why or why not? Should Kamil have had any sympathy for him? What was Kamil’s reaction when Marko shot himself?
- It is never made explicit what Elif had to do to survive the trip to Istanbul, after her husband and then her son were killed. How far would you be willing to compromise what you think is right in order to protect your family or safeguard your friends under such difficult circumstances?
- What was Kamil’s relationship with his father? Did that change during the novel? What effect has this relationship had on Kamil as a person? As a magistrate?
- How do Kamil’s relations with his family affect his other relationships, for instance his friendship with Malik and his niece Saba, or with the boy Avi?
- Is Omar a good police chief? A good person? Do you like him, admire him, or do you think he’s a dangerous, rogue policeman who obeys no law but his own? What do you think about his justifications for bribery in the police force and for the use of torture? Can you be a good person and still torture prisoners?
- Was Omar responsible for the policeman Ali’s death? Do you think he did the right thing in avenging Ali’s death?
- Was Balkis wrong to follow her passion for Alp Pasha when she was already married and had a baby? What would you have done in her place? Do you think Balkis was a good mother?
- What was the purpose of the ritual of circumcising the Melisite priestess? Why did Balkis think it was no longer necessary? Why was it important to keep the ritual secret?
- Why was Balkis so dependent on the midwife Gudit?
- How much of Saba’s concern with the fate of the Melisite sect was due to her faith, and how much was it a result of sibling rivalry or the desire to please her Uncle Malik? Will Saba make a good Melisite priestess? What do you think will happen to the sect under her leadership?
- What was the origin of the attraction between Kamil and Saba? Why didn’t Saba respond to the surgeon Courtidis’s attentions? What made her change her mind?
- Did you find Balkis’s son Amida to be a sympathetic character? What were his aspirations? What was his relationship with his servant Bilal? Do you think Amida deserved his fate?
- Amida had a chance to become the leader of his community and the secret Melisite sect. Did he throw that away, or was he just trying to modernize the community, as he claimed? How do you think Balkis should have handled her problematic son?
- Why was the text in the reliquary called the “Proof of God”? What did it claim? Why did people think it was important enough to kill for? If the Proof of God had been made public, what effect would that have had on people’s religious beliefs? On the world? Would it have changed your mind about anything?
About Manil Suri
Manil Suri is the best-selling author of The Death of Vishnu, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and The Age of Shiva. A native of Mumbai, he is a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Books by Manil Suri
"A stunning novel, proof that Manil Suri is a major storyteller of heart and intelligence." —Amy TanMore
A dazzling, multilayered novel that not only encompasses a searing love story but, with its epic reach, encapsulates the fate of the world.More
“Enchanting. . . . Suri’s novel achieves an eerie and memorable transcendence.”—TimeMore