"'Take my camel, dear, ' said my aunt Dot." So begins Macaulay's greatest novel. Traveling overland from Istanbul to legendary Trebizond, the narrator and her companions have a series of hilarious encounters. The dominant note of this novel is humorous, but the import is often tragic.
So begins Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond, a quietly compelling and incredibly amusing story of various English expats traveling in Turkey. Having completed the novel, I find that it's actually surprising how many elements of the story can be captured in this single opening sentence. The dominant present of aunt Dot, the bestowing of a crazy camel, the question of being beholden to others, the Anglican mission. It might seem like a somewhat strange book for a modern reader, but I must say that I found myself oddly captivated by it.
Laurie is our narrator, a young woman without much direction of her own... and not much money, either. She's traveling with her aunt Dot (who, naturally, foots the bill) and their current focus is Turkey. Aunt Dot is seeking to write a book about Turkey (and indeed, everyone they know these days seems to be writing a book about Turkey) with a focus on the plight of women. Laurie will draw the accompanying illustrations while Dot discusses how miserable these Muslim women must be in their current state. The book, however, is a secondary concern, as Dot's true goal in this expedition is to be an Anglican missionary, converting Muslims to the Church of England (again, with particular focus on women). Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg is also accompanying them on their journey, as Dot feels a priest would be a necessary addition to a missionary group, and while Dot and Father Hugh don't quite see eye-to-eye on everything, they all go forth, arguing about who has to ride the camel (which belongs to Aunt Dot and which might be going slowly insane). Laurie recounts their various travels from city to city, encountering acquaintences and exploring on her own. There's certainly a melancholy air to Laurie, more about which one gradually uncovers as the novel goes on, and there's also a rather interesting view of religion expressed by one who has always had it apart of her life and yet who isn't totally convinced of its necessity or even her place within a church should she wish to believe.
As a bit of an Anglophile, this unconventional and casual (yet quite knowledgeable) discussion of the Church of England is certainly interesting... particularly given how ludicrous the overall missionary role is when clearly is ragtag band will get nowhere with any locals. The really captivating part, though, is how much the narrator is struggling with her own religion. I wouldn't necessarily call this book religious in any way (as it's not trying to persuade the reader to any understanding), but it certainly is an articulate account from one who wants to believe and yet has sincere questions. Even more poignant is Laurie's other major struggle (and it isn't giving anything away to simply note that it is, indeed, romantic in nature). The Towers of Trebizond draws you in and catches you unawares -- suddenly, one is completely wrapped up in this odd little volume, a novel that clearly belongs to another time but still possesses timeless concerns and emotions.
There are incredibly funny bits to it all -- I expected Aunt Dot to be a kind of Auntie Mame and while she is not that, she is still a ridiculously amusing aunt without any intention of being so. The total distrust of foreigners is ratcheted up in these particular places where everyone is suspected of being a spy for everyone else. The camel is a riot -- alternately suffering from insanity and amorous moods -- to the point where one almost laments the fact that transportation these days is not quite so independently minded. Almost. The sudden emergence of random people in strange places is delightful -- indicative of the world becoming smaller and the way particular places become trendy. And any reader can understand the idea of certain types of literature rising up to be all the rage, so the fact that everyone seems to be writing a Turkey book, often at the deliberate expense of others, becomes a fascinating background.
I don't quite know what mood you should be in to pick up this novel for prime enjoyment, but I do hope you select it with an open mind and the desire to simply be absorbed in a story that is (most likely) far beyond your immediate life. Drizzly afternoons with tea (aka something that feels just as English as Laurie) strike me as an excellent setting. As a character, Laurie might not do anything wild and adventurous, but I can assure you that her quiet and deep observations will always stay with me. Indeed, the whole of The Towers of Trebizond will stay with you long after you have finished reading it as you think on its contents and what it is that you would consider your own coveted lands, even if they only live on in memory.
The other part of the book also has its oddities: once Auntie Dot and the priest have been shunted off over the frontier, there are long stretches where we seem to lose track of the idea that this is a novel, and it reads more like a straightforward Robert-Byronish travel book. It does have rather a thirties feel to it, definitely: it seems odd when we are pulled back into the fifties by a mention of the Cold War or Burgess and MacLean.
Overall, I suspect that this is a better, more complex novel than it's often given credit for: certainly, it's much more than just an amiable send-up of English eccentrics abroad.
Her traveling companions include her extremely eccentric aunt, who insists on traveling around Turkey on a racing camel & trying to convert the Turkish women to Anglicanism. Laurie herself has a streak of eccentricity which leads her to acquire an ape, which she takes back to England where she teaches it to drive, garden, and attend Anglican church services!!
This book is a mostly hilarious sendup of conventional society (primarily British, but others do not escape unscathed) in the form of a travelogue and memoir of a youngish upper middle-class English woman who travels to Turkey with her Aunt Dot and their High Anglican minister Hugh Chantry-Pigg. A camel, Billy Graham sightings, and a disappearance into Soviet Russia are involved in this wonderfully witty tale. Macaulay also sprinkles some philosophy along the way and a sudden and sobering twist at the end.
By turns quirky, eccentric, funny, and thoughtful, The Towers of Trebizond is a nugget well worth rediscovery.
Large parts of this book felt like they had almost been written to cater specifically to my tastes: they’re whimsical, colourful, indulge in the joys of largely obstacle-free travelling, and the characters are archaeology-obsessed know-it-alls who are over-educated in Classical European History and who enjoy their little discussions about random points of Christian theology. It’s all very cute and amiable, and the novelistic parts, lightweight as they are, do not interrupt the travelogue too much.
While the troupe of Brits are presented as too smug even to think of themselves as foreigners when travelling through another country, their twittishness is presented with a dollop of self-irony, and paired with a largely sympathetic portrayal of the people behind the class, a mixture that makes the whole thing much more palatable than it would otherwise have been.
All in all, an easily digestible, whimsical period piece: a pleasant and smooth read through a book that has no real pretensions to profundity. If my review has whetted your appetite, the book is probably for you; if not, it likely won’t be.
I should probably warn people that I'm on a weird kick of 1950s English popular fiction by women. And this was enormously popular when it came out. A young woman accompanies her aunt and a priest on a tour of Turkey. There are a lot of jokes about Anglicanism, many more than I thought were possible, actually. This was intriguing on several levels -- it's fairly interesting right there on the surface, and also a great look at the time when it was written, and fun to compare and contrast to what passes for popular literature today. It's also one of those books that ends up being about something quite different than you suspect: it would appear to be a book about touring around Turkey on a camel, and it turns out to really be about personal moral responsibilities and obligations.
Recommended: It's a strangely good book, but it has that unsettling quality that sometimes happens when a book isn't timeless ... it's very much of its time and reading it involves significant emotional discordance.
The doyenne is primarily concerned with the plight of Muslim women and seeks to enlighten and “free” them through conversion to Christianity. Along the way, the group picks up assorted fellow travelers as it makes its way by ship and camel through the area of Armenia and most particularly the Byzantine stronghold of Trebizond. At this point, the doyenne and her Anglican escort break off from the group in order to covertly enter communist Russia.
The narrator (the niece), continues through Anatolia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and back to Istanbul and England, all the while pondering the fate of her aunt. As I said, this is a somewhat quirky read and not entirely to my liking. Written in the style of upper class English literature of the era, it is something of a travelogue, with various musings on culture, art, religion and human nature. Periods of entertaining prose scattered throughout an overall snooze of a novel.
While I found most of the short novel tolerable, the final 20-30 pages are virtually unreadable, including a 10-12 page simulated conversation between several religious proponents on the comparative strengths and weaknesses of various faiths. Not recommended.