Expectations are everything when it comes to books. “Midnight at the Pera Palace” was the set book for July/August for one of my book clubs. It had glowing reviews all over the internet, and somehow I’d gotten the idea that it was something like a microhistory of a Turkish hotel in the 1920s. I think I even went so far as to imagine it was a fictionalised version of the night of Turkey’s independence, where all the characters were big name diplomats and historical figures in a small bar at the Pera Palace hotel. Boy did I have the wrong end of the stick.
“Midnight at the Pera Palace” by Charles King is a non-fiction work about the city of Istanbul in Turkey from just prior to World War I to after World War II. Each chapter focuses on a particular theme or historical figure including Turkey’s first president, Turkey’s first and only Miss Universe champion, Leon Trotsky, Turkey’s first feminist, the introduction of jazz and the birth of Turkish cinema.
King is an eloquent and thoughtful writer who showcases his meticulous research throughout this book. For the most part, “Midnight at the Pera Palace” is an interesting expose on the constantly shifting region of and around Turkey. This book really demonstrates that nationality is often a question of where the boundaries fall around you, and that cultural identity often comes from the top down. However, there were a couple of things that bothered me about this book. Firstly, despite its thoroughness, this book did feel a lot like it kept rehashing the same ground over and over. Each chapter was structured loosely around the pre-WWI to post-WWII timeline which gave them a somewhat repetitive feel. Next, some of King’s language felt a bit outdated – especially his (incorrect) use of ‘schizophrenic’ as an adjective to mean ‘having multiple natures’ and his repeated use of ‘indigenous’. Finally, although this was a book about Turkey, I actually came away from “Midnight at the Pera Palace” still feeling largely ignorant of Turkish people, their history and culture. The reason for this is that King had quite the preoccupation with the rising and falling elites of the period who, for the most part, were either Western, wealthy or both. Multiple chapters were spent discussing the exodus of ethnic minorities from the newly established independent nation of Turkey, and the influx of refugees from other parts of Europe and Middle East during the World Wars. In between the diplomats, the spies, the military men, the well-to-do upper class, the writers, the revolutionaries and the refugees there simply didn’t feel like there was much in there about your average Turk.
I was disappointed by this book because it wasn’t what I was expecting or interested in, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. The more I read, the more I am convinced that I’m just not interested in the fading gilded histories of privileged people past. I’m interested in reading about humanity. There are some glimpses of that in here. King’s real strength was the little snippets of real life amongst the history and they glint like jewels in the dark.