Friday, February 27, 2015

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley


"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from the High Mass.

The Towers of Trebizond has been on my to-read shelf since 2007.  It popped up on some classic book list, possibly The Guardian's list of 1000 Books Everyone Must Read (it's one of the 100 Comedies -- I've read 37 so far).  Plus I really liked the cover of the NYRB Classic edition, above, so I bought my own copy which promptly gathered dust for about seven years until I picked it up the other day.


Published in 1956, this is ostensibly a humorous tale about some unlikely companions traveling around Turkey -- the narrator, Laurie, who is a companion and assistant to her widowed Aunt Dot as she embarks on a journey which is part research for a travel book, part missionary work to convert infidels to the Church of England, and part social work to empower women in a highly traditional and sexist culture. They're accompanied by an Anglican priest, Father Chantry-Pigg, and aunt Dot's nameless camel.  

It's quirky and the wit is mostly very dry:

It is not, therefore, strange that we should have inherited a firm and tenacious adherence to the Church of our country.  With it has come down to most of us a great enthusiasm for catching fish.  Aunt Dot maintains that this propensity is peculiarly Church of England; she has perhaps made a slight confusion between the words Anglican and angling.  To be sure the French fish even more, as I sometimes point out, and to be sure, the pre-Reformation monks fished greatly. "Mostly in fish-ponds," said Aunt Dot.  "Very unsporting, and only for food." 

After a time, the group ends up separating and Laurie spends much of the trip alone with the camel.  There are a lot of funny observations, but Laurie does a lot of soul-searching about the nature of love and religion -- a lot of the book discusses the differences between the different sects of the Church of England, not to mention the Roman Catholic church and Islam.  There's a lot of discussion about the plight of women in Turkey and whether they can be emancipated and empowered.  Laurie is actually an agnostic, and spends a lot of time pondering about the nature of religion.  This book spends a LOT of time discussing religion.  Parts of it are satirical, including some digs at Billy Graham, but some of it is just thoughtful.  



There were parts of the book I found delightful and quirky, and there are a lot of lovely travelogue-y bits when Laurie travels on her own through Turkey on the back of the camel, mostly in places where she can barely speak Turkish and few of the locals speak English.  Still, she gets by quite well, which is surprising for a woman traveling on her own in a Moslem country in the 1950s.  But the end of the book turns quite serious and I did find the ending very melancholy.  I went back and read the introduction of the book after I'd finished, and it was easy to see how some of the events in the book were inspired by author Rose Macauley's own life.   

This book was extremely popular in the late 1950s when it was published -- apparently people went around quoting the famous first line.  I do think that it is definitely a product of its time -- there are some parts in this book that definitely made me uncomfortable, which  some readers could find very offensive.  However, I do think it was satirizing many religions, not just Islam.   

I'm counting this as my Forgotten Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

9 comments:

  1. I just read this for the challenge too! I'm counting it as a Humorous or Satirical Classic though -- it is humorous, though the ending is sad.

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    1. I thought about it for the humor category also, but I'd already read Wodehouse. I like having the challenge flexible so that you can count books nearly any way you want.

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  2. I read the novel some time in summer 2013... and HATED it which is something that hardly ever happens to me. I know that the story isn't meant to be taken seriously and that it was written with a constant wink of the eye, but between the lines I found an attitude towards Turkish people and Islam which I felt was despisingly arrogant and patronising. To make it clear: my family has been Austrian for generations uncountable, I've been raised as a Roman Catholic and I don't have any Turkish or Muslim friends, so this ISN'T about me... And yet the book made me feel angry at and ashamed for the late English author.

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    1. There were definitely parts of this book that made uncomfortable -- I can see how it would offend people, and I did mean to mention that in the review. I did see it as satirizing other religions as well, including RC and C of E, and especially missionaries -- Father Chantry-Pigg was very condescending. My favorite parts of the book were when Laurie was on her own with the camel and the Turkish people were incredibly kind to her. I do agree that it could be very offensive to some people.

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    2. Yes, it's true that Rose Macauley satirised Roman Catholisism and the Church of England as well, still Islam gets away worst.

      My problem with this kind of ridiculing other religions and cultures is that it can so easily be misused to show that the others are really nothing compared to yourself. Mind you, the Nazis made fun of Jews and others whom they called 'Untermensch' and it was part of their propaganda... A less reflected or already prejudiced mind, might come to such conclusions even without "help" from outside. Of course, I'd never ever allege that the author had such low motives when she wrote the story in the 1950s. Despite all the book leaves me with the feeling that she believed in the supremacy of English culture which is exactly what brings about all the hate, violence and terror that we are seeing in the world today. At least that's what I believe ... and why I refrained from reviewing this book.

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  3. I've had this book on my shelf for years too, but never felt particularly motivated to read it. I quite enjoy travelogues, but the dated part of it made me leery. This was a great review and now feel I have experienced the book to the degree that I don't know that I will ever actually read it!

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  4. I've also owned this book for a long time and I didn't really know what it was about. I feel a bit wary of reading it now, but I appreciate knowing the good and bad that you point out in your thoughts.

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  5. This is one of those books I've been meaning to read for years but never got around to. I'm in the mood for women who travel at the moment so I'll give it a go. Thanks for the review.

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  6. I ran across this at a used booksale the other day and it is now mine. Thanks for letting me know of its existence. :)

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