Anglo-Turkish Society

Lecture by Şebnem Şenyener: ‘The letters writ by a Turkish spy’, its influence on literature and on my work - flyer, 27 September 2018.

Group photo with friends at the end of the lecture.


1- Letters Writ by A Turkish Spy, was your first published novel, so clearly this is a subject close to your heart. How did you come to this idea?

Mahmut and I first met in 1995. I was working as a journalist in New York for the Turkish newspaper, Cumhuriyet. I was in the United States with an “I” visa. “I” was the official abbreviation for “Information Agent” – that is the US government’s legal name for the work permit for foreign correspondent. I like the idea of being “an information agent”, though only for my readers.

Independent journalism has never secured constitutional protection in Turkey. Even then, almost a quarter of a century ago, freedom of the press was on its way out. The last three newspapers I worked for all had their editors or owners sent to jail. In fact, I could summarize my whole careers in Turkish journalism as trying to find ways around the censor. In order to justify my political and diplomatic scoops, I had also to report on the weird and wonderful stories of everyday New York.

Just at that time, my best friend, who taught comparative literature at NYU, told me she had been using my columns in her class because they reminded her the “Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy.”

That was the first time I had ever heard the name of what has been called the Mother of All Spy Books. I rushed to the New York Public Library. There, I located the most recent edition - an abridged version published in 1978.

Right there and then I understood that the Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy would be my first novel.

2- How much do we know of the individual who wrote this first spy novel, the Genovese political refugee Giovanni Marana? History records that in 1672 he apparently masterminded an unsuccessful conspiracy for passing the town of Savona under the rule of the Dukes of Savoy was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. Do you think he could have himself been a spy for France and this whole event was orchestrated by Louis XIV of France?

History records that on April 15, 1683, a political refugee from Genoa, called Giovanni Paolo Marana, presented a draft manuscript to Louis XIV in Paris titled L’esploratore turco e le di liu pratiche segrete con la Porta Ottomana: Scoperte in Parigi nel regno di Luiggi in Grande, L’anno 1683, Tomo primo.

Marana was born in 1642 to a once noble family near Genoa, then one of Italy’s seafaring Maritime Republics and former home of Christopher Columbus. As a young man, Marana became implicated in a plot against the Republic by an exiled Genovese Count Rafaello Della Torre, backed by the Duke of neighbouring Savoy. The Duke of Savoy declared war on Genoa in 1672 in hopes of capturing the port of Savona. Genoa received assistance from Spain and Savoy failed. Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” of France intervened and a peace was concluded in 1673.

Marana was jailed in Genoa for four years. During his imprisonment, he translated the works of Seneca. Such was his dedication to his work that when he was given no quill and ink in his cell, he used his own toenails to write with lampblack for ink.

Marana was finally released to Genoa’s ally Spain, where he remained under the supervision Genovese authorities. He wrote a history of the Della Torre conspiracy in which he had been involved - but the manuscript was seized by the Genovese.

Marana rewrote it and published it in Lyons the following year, 1682. He dedicated it to his patron, the Duke of Monaco, an ally of Louis XIV.

Now as published political historian Marana went to Paris seeking royal patronage.

He managed to get permission to publish only three volumes of his work. That is 102 of his 500 letters alltogether that were published in French –from 1684 to 1686- and after that he got in trouble with the French censors.

I, therefore, personally believe, Marana was not a spy hired by France. Of course, there is a chance that the history might prove me wrong. But from all I know, I believe, in order to get his writings published and to pass French censors, Marana simply offered to write a flattering account of the reign of Louis XIV.

The seventeenth century, too, was an age of terrible upheaval and violence. The religious wars and carnage were so appalling and the fate of humanity was so doomed. It became apparent that a consensus based on strong tolerance was clearly the mutual interest of survival.

Mahmut’s letters popularised the new thought of the Enlightenment. In no other 17th century work, the popularization of Enligthenment ideals has been so fully realized. He was an avid reader of European philosophers, particularly Descartes, who had a decisive influence on his thinking.

As soon as his Letters were first published in 1684, this irrestible “first” spy of European literature won the hearts of readers. It has become the Mother of All Spy Novels.

By 1776 there was at least 26 different editions of the Turkish Spy in print.

3- The first three volumes (102 letters) of this book was published in several parts between 1684 and 1686 in both Italian and in a French translation. This straddles the period of Ottoman furthest advance, yet defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Do you think this symbolic defeat made writing about a fictional Turk operating in the heart of Europe more palatable? Was it a sign that Europeans no longer saw the Turks as an existential threat?

Almost certainly, the defeat in 1683 at the gates of Vienna must have been a crucial factor for the publication of The Letters. A Turkish character is very unusual and obviously it provokes extreme curiosity in Europe at the time.

In fact, personally, I believe that while in Spain Marana must have come across the then-popular novel Don Quixote, by Cervantes, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, the most influential work in the modern western literary canon.

In the preface of part one of the novel, Cervantes claims he is not the original author, but is simply passing on information that can be found in the archives of La Mancha. At the end of chapter VIII, Cervantes interrupts the adventure with the excuse that the archivel information has finished.

But in Chapter IX, Cervantes reports that he has found “in the market in Toledo, a youth selling a parcel of old written papers to a shopkeeper.” He “could not forbear laying his hands on one of the manuscripts to see, what it was, and he found it to be written in Arabic... it was his good fortune to find immediately a Morisco that understood Spanish... he pressed him to read the title of the book, which he did, turning it thus extempore out of Arabic, The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha written by Cide Hamete Benengali, an Arabic historian.” Later he describes this Benengali as “Arabian and Manchegan”, meaning Spanish and muslim. And Part II, Chapter XLIV, Benengeli describes himself as a Moor.

In my judgement, it was from Cervantes classic that Marana first got the idea of claiming to find Arabic letters.

The manuscript that Marana presented to Louis XIV uses same technique as Cervantes, not only to create an air of authenticity, but also to protect himself from the reaction of an autocrat by laying the blame on the fictional source.

I am pretty sure that it must have been Cervantes who had opened Marana’s eyes to see the appetite of the European reader for a foreign, exotic character.

In the preface of his manuscript, just like Cervantes, Marana claimed to have discovered in Paris a packet of letters written in Arabic. Asserting to have had the letters translated into Italian and then French, he claimed that they were written by a Turk named Mahmut, who was sent to spy on the French for his master, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

This is how his Turkish Spy was born with a title in French first: L’espion turc.

The letters are autobiographical. Marana’s life runs parallel to that of his character Mahmut.

4- Clearly Giovanni Marana was a well-connected intellectual who researched his subject matter. Do you think he was able to meet up with Turks or Genoese sailors etc. who had recently returned from Turkey to get his names and other details right? Do you think his writings show a degree of empathy for the Islamic point of view, presumably way ahead of his time by other observers from the West?

Absolutely. I have been frequenting recently near Genoa myself. I just started to learn about the extent of Genovese and Turkish correspondence that was much greater at the time. Genoa had extensive and long lasting trade links with the Ottoman Empire. They must have been very familiar with names, language, manners, alphabet of the islamic culture.

It is quite possible that Marana, might have had an encounter with Turks while he was in the Genovese prison as well. Since Cervantes too was once taken prisoner, spending five years in Algiers after being captured by Barbary pirates.

He writes with a clear intention and confidence to challenge his reader’s prejudices.

Through his hero Mahmut, he constantly juxtaposes the role of the dogmatic nationalist and then the cosmopolitan sceptic. Just as he is convinced of the superiority of his religion and culture, he also is troubled as much by its difficulties and inconsistencies.

He is ironic when he views Christianity and the Christian nations as earlier Christians did the nations of Islam. But then he goes beyond. In the beginning of his letters he first appears as naive about his own religion and nation as the Christians are about theirs. Then as the story progresses he becomes a mirror that shocks his reader when they see themselves on it.

So the work becomes a testimony of its time. For example, in one of the first English editions, in the preface “To the reader”, the editor insists that “Mahmut is no barbarian,” which was then the usual European opinion of the Turk. It continues supporting this idea by saying: “He reasons not as a Barbarian, but like an able Statesman and wise philosopher... though these letters be neither Greek nor Latin, nor written by a Christian, they contain nothing Barbarous, and though the Ignorant be in great numbers amongst the Turks, there are yet men of great understanding that write the annals of the ottoman empire.

In the letters Mahmut in fact grows sensitive to the hypocrisy and fanaticism that surrounds him. He observes it, yet never acts to change it except being an advocate of liberal sentiments.

That is why he is the ideal of the Enlightenment – and paradoxically he remains a comic figure. He keeps his readers sense of humor alive at all times making them both laugh at and admire him for his comic blundering but good heart. He constantly thinks to himself quietly, without once ceasing to be an observer of society and events.

5- In these letters you can clearly glean some ideas and prejudices held by the author Marana. Do you think he could be described as ‘progressive’ by shining a light on the not so enlightened West, yet by making his hero write from an alien and Moslem perspective he avoids the potential reader and censor backlash? Would you go further and describe him as pro-women’s and individuals rights?

It surely came across “progressive” to me when I first read it. That was three hundred years later in New York.

I was much impressed by his letters about women as he praises Descartes for advocating the emancipation of women and invites Turks to follow French in liberating their women: “The pen has almost supplanted the exercise of the needle; and Ladies closets, formerly the shop of female baubles, toys and vanities are now turned to libraries and sanctuaries of learned books,” he writes.

He elaborates: “Their senses are generally as quick as ours, their reason as nervous, their judgments as mature and solid. Add but to these natural perfections, the advantage of acquired learning, what polite and charming creatures will they prove.

He is a vegetarian. He cannot accept the ill treatment of animals. He strongly critises the prevailing notion that animals have no souls.

And most of all, Mahmut complains of his difficulties with the censor; “The secretary of state, as Master of all that is written, has Orders to en-register my Letters and examine them. He, according to his Capriciousness, or Ignorance, may render the Exactness wherewith I obey, criminal, by saying, I am a fool, or do not write the truth. This registring puts me in pain,” he writes.

Mahmut’s long and frequent paragraphs on the uncertainty of the future, destiny, and chance, and the darkness of human knowledge, his skepticisms, hypochondriac and melancholic character is the predecessor of progressive character of our modern novels today.

This gives good reason to Mahmut to be actually the first modern narrator. Italian academic Gian Carlo Roscioni suggests that “Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy” is “...the first novel in the history of Europe whose main character is a neurotic, solitary, hypochondriac, intellectual, afflicted by many of the phobias and obsessions that characterise what has been called modern psychology.

6- In the cover of your book, there is the portrait showing the supposed spy. He is surrounded by imagery of knowledge and so bestowing the spy with an intellectual stature and there is a mysterious portrait of a fisherman returning with his net. Can you tell us more on how these clues tie in to the identity of the author?

Yes. This is my new discovery. Thanks to my recent talk for the Anglo-Turkish Society in London (27 October 2018) I noticed “the portrait within a portrait” on the cover of the book. I realized it was the crime scene, so to speak. I researched it and to my delight I found out that it provided the main clue revealing the real identity of the Turkish Spy.

The cover of my book comes from the first English edition of the Letters that was published in 1691. It is the frontispiece of the first English edition of the book. It is in the British Library.

Inside the cover, Mahmut is portrayed by the great 17th century Dutch Frederick Hendrik Van Hove, who lived in London at the time. He portrayed many of the most powerful men of England - King Charles II, Oliver Cromwell, King James II, and King William III at the time. Mahmut is the only exception to these real portraits as a character of a novel. In fact to see his portrait among them is also a clue about his fame and his influence at the time.

Van Hove drew Mahmut as a short, bearded man, with a quite pronounced hunched back. Clad in his Moldovan priest disguise, he is sitting on a chair before his writing table, pen in hand, writing a letter. On the table is his ink pot, some geometrical instruments, an hourglass and other letters.

Just above Mahmut, there is a window and a library on the other side, covered with a curtain. Its shelves hold a copy of the Alcoran, or Qu’ran, the Moslem holy book; histories by the Roman Tacitus; and the reflections of St Augustine, the Christian theologian known for the line: “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” On the floor sits the globe, some scrolls, bags of money and more letters.

On the wall hangs a mirror, a watch, gas-lamp and a portrait.

While I was preparing the talk I noticed it first time. I researched it and found out that the painting hanging on the wall of Mahmut’s room, is the portrait of the Sicilian fisher-patriot, Masaniello (Tomasso Aniello), the revolutionary fisherman who was the leader of the 1647 revolt against the rule of Spain in Naples, on his way back from fishing.

Masaniello is the subject of Mahmut’s three letters. They are about the French efforts to undermine Spanish control of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by fomenting revolt. Mahmut’s great admiration for the martyred Masaniello is clearly an attempt by Marana to pass the French censor again by putting pro-French context in the letters.

I believe this is a significant detail, may be even an in-joke that was put in there by the portrait artist Van Hove to reveal the identity of the real author of the Letters since Marana disguised himself carefully by claiming to be only the translator.

7- Do we know anything of the real earliest Ottoman spies and how they operated?

There is surely –fictional and non-fictional- legendary spy tales involving Ottoman Empire’s extension in Europe starting from 16th century, soon after the fall of Constantinople. These legends often involves Genova as well as Venice and the Ottoman-Habsburg rivalry.

8- This novel represents a lot of firsts, such as the first spy novel, and possibly the first modern narrative, first memoirist / political satirist. With such a literary pioneer do you think it is strange this book is not more studied?

It is very strange indeed. It is such a mystery that it provides a mystery itself.

The Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy, was responsible for that remarkable literary invention - the letter from the foreign observer offering insights into a society. So many have followed in this tradition, including me with my Sunday newspaper columns from New York.

He pioneered the epistolary novel. People are still writing them - only with email and Twitter exchanges, instead of old-fashioned letters.

Just this month, I counted four new books in English -some novels, some travelogues- on display in major bookstores of London, their titles included “Letters.”

In the late 17th century, Mahmut was an unprecedented character.

As the first literary spy - the Mother of The Spy Novel, a genre that still enthralls us today. All the cloak-and-dagger conventions of international spy stories we all are familiar with today are born in his letters.

He has also been called the “first memoirist,” or at least the first pseudo-autobiographical narrator.

Here are some early examples of how his originals letters were pirated, repirated, alluded to, discussed, imitated, augmented, and continued by both French and English authors:

In 1698, the satirical writer Ned Ward’s complete survey of the London scene in 18 monthly instalments as the “London Spy.”

In 1700, Gatien Coutilz published The French Spy, or the Memoirs of John Baptiste de la Fontaine.

1709 saw the publication of Charles Gildon’s The Golden Spy, or a Political Journal of the British Nights Entertainment came.

In 1713 Captain Bland’s York Spy was printed.

No lesser literary figure than Daniel Defoe, the prolific journalist and author of Robinson Crusoe, also became also attracted to Mahmut. In 1718, Defoe extended Mahmut’s account with his “Continuation of Turkish Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy in Paris.

In 1721, Montesquieu published his famous “Letters Persane” (“Persian Letters”) - a satire of society through the eyes of two imaginary Persian visitors to Paris and Europe pointing out absurdities of contemporary French society.

In 1739 came The Jewish Spy and The German Spy, both anonymous.

In 1755, The Invisible Spy by Eliza Haywood and many more came to print.

In 1760, the Irish novelist and playwright Oliver Goldsmith published a series of letters under the title, “The Citizen of the World,” in which a Chinese traveler comments on English society, comments in the same ironic and sometimes moralistic manner as Mahmut. It was reissued at least fifteen times in French, and as often in English by 1770.

“The Turkish Spy” therefore achieved a special place in European literary history.

Still the authorship of the Mother of All Spy Books remained one of the literature’s most successfully guarded secrets, and is still is a matter of controversy today.

9- This book became successful right from the start with a whole number of re-prints. Do you think this book tapped into a gap in the market? What do you think are the main elements behind this success?

I really think Marana’s genius in cloaking himself as the author of his own work achieved this amazing success. Even though it completely obscured Marana’s identity as the writer, his hero thrived. Marana himself faithfully disappeared, unnoticed and forgotten in the history of literature - much like the faith he chose for his hero Mahmut who “vanishes mysteriously” only to resurfaces again and again in real life through the very many new genres of modern literature.

10- Marana consistently insisted he was merely the translator but your investigations prove that he was clearly the author. Was censorship so tight and dangerous in those days? Do you think it is depressing that the world in parts hasn’t changed much after 300 years regarding press / publication freedoms?

The autobiographical nature of the letters reveals that the author Marana’s life runs parallel to that of his character Mahmut. Given the uncertainties he faced in life, Marana had no other chance but to create Mahmut as a cover for himself.

There were hack writers and others to claim authorship of the work both in England as well as in France.

But I believe all the evidence confirms that Marana was indeed the sole author of all 630 of letters of the Turkish Spy, as he is the creator of Mahmut the Arabian.

It is perfectly possible that as originally planned he completed the work in all eight volumes by 1686 within the two years of arriving in Paris. When he realized that the rest of the volumes wouldn’t pass the French censor, he found a way to send them to England. In England, the translator then might have destroyed the originals.

Unless the originals are ever found, the authorship of the Turkish Spy remains one of the most beautiful unsolved mysteries in literature.

The conditions of the 17th century that created The Letters run parallel to our life today. In fact, the censorship in Turkey is worse than ever.

It is unacceptable that while I write these lines, the publisher of my first novel; The Letters Writ By Turkish Spy’s first edition, Osman Kavala, is in solitary confinement for more than a year now at a maximum security prison in İstanbul, with no guilt or crime committed, therefore untried and unaccused.

Present leaders’ fear of reporting the truth is even greater than those of the kings and the sultans’ of the 17th century. With their ever growing fears they are continuing committing unutterable crimes. They are keeping democracy on the wane for decades now and the populations in absolute darkness. Instead of tolerance and understanding between peoples, they are cultivating nationalism, hate and anger preparing roads to new wars.

11- What are you currently working on?

Keeping the tradition of Marana, I am presently working on an autobiographical novel. I recently discovered a secret of my grandmother.

A century ago in İzmir, she embroidered her bridal bed sheets.

The style of her embroidery is known as broderie anglaise which became popular in Europe in the 19th century. Her gleaming white thread cuts oval holes in the fine white cotton. These holes are called “eyelets.” They spread across the cloth to form petals, flowers, leaves, vines and stems. They are like confetti on the cotton with a joyful force.

In the centre of the pattern, there is a branch of freshly blossomed hyacinth shading some letters. Since my childhood these letters puzzled me since I wasn’t familiar with their alphabet. So I often questioned my mother about them. Each time she silenced my curiosity saying that “they were the fashion of my grandmother’s time. They were called majuscule.”

I now know that like a calligrapher, who identifies himself by hiding a deliberate mistake in his lettering when he writes a sacred text, my grandmother too had artfully scribed her real identity on her bridal embroidery, amidst her floral designs.

Shattering the stereotypes of our so-called identity, she, whom I thought I knew so well, became somebody I realized never really knew. And I, who, as a journalist and novelist, had spent my entire life finding ways of writing about truth; I, who was confident that I knew myself well, had to meet my new self.

Interiew conducted by Craig Encer, November 2018.