Making History Sing: On Vera Mutafchieva’s “The Case of Cem”

By Josh BillingsMarch 13, 2024

Making History Sing: On Vera Mutafchieva’s “The Case of Cem”

The Case of Cem by Vera Mutafchieva

THE HISTORICAL NOVEL begins in English with the romances of Walter Scott, which discover The Past with the same kind of bounce-house exuberance that later writers would turn on Transylvania, or Mars. Bodices are ripped, bloodlines despoiled, fathers avenged. It is all very exciting but at the same time pretty safe, if only because we understand that these breathtaking carriage chases and bloody duels are happening to people who are fundamentally different from us (because they don’t have cell phones). The distance we experience between ourselves as readers and the world we are reading about gives the story a cosplayesque frisson, which the genre of historical fiction both depends on and works hard to disguise—since part of the fun of reading these books is that, in addition to being completely made up, they actually happened. In the second half of the 20th century, this voyeuristic relationship would be debunked by authors like Cormac McCarthy and Hilary Mantel—but the trick underneath it all would be practically identical. After we sift through all the rapes and beheadings, the feeling we get from a book like Wolf Hall (2009) or Blood Meridian (1985) remains fundamentally the same as it was from Rob Roy (1817). The world of The Past is troubling and strange. Thank god we don’t live there.

Written in 1967 by the Bulgarian historian Vera Mutafchieva, The Case of Cem (published in January by Sandorf Passage, in an English translation by Angela Rodel) has the kind of plot that a revisionist like Mantel would have drooled over but which, in Mutafchieva’s treatment, unrolls with deceptive serenity, like a slow-motion video of a building being blown up. In the last years of the 15th century, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmet II, dies while on campaign, leaving his succession in doubt and his two sons—the older tactician, Bayezid, and his mercurial younger brother, Cem—to make their bids for the throne. The period of uncertainty lasts barely a few months, as Bayezid consolidates his power with the very clerical class that his father had ousted from the government. Cem puts up a brief resistance in Syria and Egypt before finally handing himself over to the Knights Templar and the fathomless political machinations of the Catholic Church—at which point the real subject of The Case of Cem snaps into focus, and we see that the straightforward story of rebellion we thought we were reading is in fact going to be a much subtler and more somber meditation on what happens when an individual is unlucky enough to get caught up in the dehumanizing operations of History.

We feel the tragedy of this involvement most clearly not just in the plot of The Case of Cem but also in its form, which unravels via a series of overlapping first-person “testimonies.” Some of the characters speaking these pass through the broader history only briefly; some of them play such a large part in the story of Cem Sultan as to effectively eclipse him as the hero of his own book. This is especially the case with the chapters spoken by Cem’s advisor and lover, the poet Saadi, who is easily the most memorable character in the book. Like most of the testimonies, his narrative is fascinatingly binocular: a combination of two perspectives—present-tense actor and retrospective testifier—that match and correct each other, forming a single image that is richer and more contradictory than either of its parts.

At the beginning of the book, for example, Saadi is as much a believer in Cem’s right to the throne as Cem himself is, but he tempers his enthusiasm with a melancholy that makes us feel how much Cem’s mistakes are not personal (or not just personal) but rather eruptions of a fatal energy that transforms heroes into failures and dreams into disappointing realities. “History is not made by individuals,” he admits at one point, contradicting his own master in his attempt to justify him. In another part of the chapter, he pleads his case with a vehemence that makes it sound as if he is speaking for everyone who has had to answer for their youthful convictions:

Do not laugh at what I will now say; try to understand us. We were not bandits, nor even soldiers. We lived with the conviction that we were bringing pure beauty into the world. We were not satisfied with a solution that would bring injustice, violence, or sham—we strove to reconcile our harsh law with our thirst to live. We needed to feel that we were in the right—this sets the poet apart from the man.

Saadi’s request sounds pathetic, but its honesty in the face of its own embarrassment gives it a universal note. It reminds us that his—and Cem’s—failure is essentially a version of something that we all feel, whether we end up in the history books or not. We all look back on our lives and think, How did we get this wrong? Similarly, when standing in front of our own hypothetical judges, we all begin our testimonies with that same plea that the poet speaks here to his invisible tribunal: “Do not laugh at what I will now say; try to understand us.”

If there is one thing that history has “taught” the novel to see, it is how great things can come from small; The Case of Cem returns the favor, then, by demonstrating just how insignificant the vast majority of our grand conceits appear when viewed through the turned-around telescope of history. This is an idea Mutafchieva no doubt encountered in one of her great predecessors, Tolstoy, whose War and Peace (1869) is, among (many) other things, a massive essay on how it didn’t really matter what Napoleon thought he was doing at Waterloo. But where Tolstoy took a Christian anarchist’s comfort from the impotence of the so-called Great Man (perhaps because it made his own secluded estate feel like a catbird’s seat), Mutafchieva understands our venial helplessness to be one of the tragedies of human life. She uses the frog-boiling form of the novel to show us a world full of people being gradually deformed into something they never thought they’d be. But if the romantic heroes of Saadi’s poetic imagination don’t make their own lives, then who does? Or, to put it with more of the bitterness that it deserves, why does history so often turn out to be something other than what we planned?

For a certain strain of contemporary novelist, the answer to this question is hilariously obvious: history is made by a cabal of secretive masterminds who have worked their dark magic for centuries, and who will continue to do so as long as the modern capitalist state remains in place. This is the force that works shadily through Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), where its representatives are the East India Company, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger (2022). In The Case of Cem, the most eloquent advocate of this Manichaean principle is Pierre D’Aubusson, whose oddly-punctuated subheading gives him the title “The Grand Master of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.” As bad guys go, D’Aubusson is clearly meant to fall into the Iago category of lovable villainy—a designation that he earns through exuberance and a willingness to act and think outside the annoying bounds of moral propriety. Actually, his greatest trick is to hypnotize the people around him, and by extension us, into believing that moral propriety is the real illusion, and that those who follow it are therefore either suckers or even more cynical than he is:

You’re judging me, I can see; even without this last admission, I am still the most hateful figure in the case of Cem. But I believe—because for the first time someone is hearing me, Pierre D’Aubusson, out—you have already figured out as much: I myself was a victim in this case. Others left me to dirty my hands so they could later reap the fruits of my sin. They knew from the beginning that I would act only as I did, and so they waited patiently; they waited for the crime to be committed so as to take advantage of it. With the right of the stronger.

For D’Aubusson, into whose hands Cem falls when his flight brings him to an island controlled by the Templars, the rights of the stronger are the only rights, or at least the only ones that count. Because of his unwavering devotion to this conviction, his chapters of Cem’s story can sound uncomfortably familiar to readers in the 21st century. He’s a cinquecento Mitch McConnell, a Putinesque strongman whose cynical riffs on the reality of power one could imagine playing excellently on Fox News’s The Five. At the same time, as is the case with Saadi and all the other characters in the book, he is also a loser—although not because his plans don’t come to fruition (they do, for the most part), but because, when it comes to history, everybody in The Case of Cem loses. Even the most brilliant politicians (and D’Aubusson’s testimonies do succeed in convincing us that he is brilliant) end up looking like naive collaborators at best, and at worst, in the unflattering light of hindsight, like unwitting pawns. As if to underline this fact, Mutafchieva informs us of their eventual deaths in the most underwhelming ways possible. We learn about D’Aubusson being ultimately outmaneuvered mainly through the report of his right-hand man. Even Cem’s older brother Bayezid, who stalks the book in a state of masterly control, is given a sentence-long flash forward towards the end, in which we see the after-the-fact perspective of history taking its revenge on what we have thought of up to this point as one of his era’s most capable politicians.

It is in the light of this general doom that the fate of Cem himself begins to emit a representative glow, one that feels less like a judgment of him than of the world into which he has been thrust. Indeed, on a plot level, the details of Cem’s descent further into exile couldn’t be more logical. Having placed himself in the hands of the Templars, who essentially hold him prisoner from that point on, he becomes, in the words of one character, the greatest “bargaining chip” of the age—a MacGuffin desired by Bayezid Khan in the east (who seeks both to neutralize Cem as a threat to his throne and to ensure that he is not symbolically humiliated) and by the various European powers in the west. Like a petulant chess piece, Cem moves—or is moved—from Rhodes to France to the Vatican over a period of many years, his social circle and quarters becoming gradually more restricted until at last he loses his health and descends into a bitter acceptance of his fate. When he dies, his stock as political currency experiences a momentary bump, as the very brother who just had him poisoned threatens to invade Europe in order to retrieve Cem’s corpse—an inexplicable maneuver from the Machiavellian Bayezid that one of the testifiers defends as being proof of a certain illogic at the heart of history:

Well, don’t look for much logic in history—it’s made by people, after all. So there you have it: Bayezid Khan—the very portrait of prudence, fear, and perfidy, cautious and cold-blooded to a fault—started a war inspired by feelings, and beautiful feelings at that. Here I have one piece of advice for you, if I may dare to be so bold, because I lived too long and saw too much: when you try to explain history, leave a small but essential part of it unexplained. It is inexplicable—resign yourself to this.

In this book, where stepping onto the historical stage is not unlike being dropped into a grain thresher, the idea that there are things—moments, ideas, maybe even entire lives—that escape the throes of history is about as much hope as we can ask for. To Mutafchieva—the Bulgarian Ottomanist writing this novel in 1967, in the thick of the Cold War—it must have sounded downright self-deluded, although there is a scene in the book that makes me wonder if, even given its unrealism, she might have been on the side of such “beautiful feelings” anyway. At the end of his rope, abused and rejected, the long-suffering Saadi flees Rome, incognito until his identity is discovered on a fishing boat, and he is asked to sing the song of Layla and Majnun. For a second of performance, he is free in a way we haven’t seen anyone be in this entire book—and won’t see again from Saadi, whose imminent murder we learn about in the next chapter. And yet, even intuiting how his story ends, it is hard to read the scene and not see his fate as a happy one: maybe the only happy scene in the book. Despite having to live in history, as we all do, the poet Saadi gets a moment to sing—a moment in which, if we close our eyes and listen closely, history itself almost seems to disappear.

LARB Contributor

Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine.


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