Death in Istanbul

By Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, January 28, 2007


By Christoph Peters

Translated from the German by John Cullen

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 305 pp. $23.95

This novel breaks rules and gets away with it. It looks like a thriller, acts like a character study and leaves the reader pondering its own narrative structure.

The Fabric of Night takes place in Istanbul, where a 28-year-old German sculptor named Albin Kranz is vacationing with his longtime girlfriend, Livia. Albin is also keeping company with alcohol, but that's nothing new: They've been tight, if you will, for years. As a rule, he tries to hide his habit -- or at least the extent of it -- from Livia, though she doesn't miss much.

Besides her lover's drunkenness, Livia has to put up with being constantly tested. As Albin admits in one of the interior monologues that take up about half the book, for the five years they've been together, he's been "trying to find out if she loved [him], and if she did, whether her love had limits." Just now, he's pretty sure it does: Livia isn't hiding her interest in an art student, Jan, who belongs to a group from Frankfurt with whom she and Albin have teamed up to sightsee.

But Albin is indifferent to Livia's looming betrayal because he's become obsessed with a crime. As he watched and listened from across the street, Miller, an American gem dealer and fellow carouser, was out on the balcony of his hotel room, breakfasting with a female companion. Just after Miller uttered an oddly worded sentence ("Take care of you, baby"), "a sound sizzled over the rooftops, a short, sharp sound like rubber bursting or the cork coming out of a wine bottle, and Miller fell forward," dead.

Had that been all, had the hotel acted responsibly and the police gone to work on the case, Albin might have just given his eyewitness report and returned to his boozing. But when he went over to see where things stood, the hotel desk clerk not only denied that any such thing had happened but added, "There's no Mr. Miller registered here." Annoyed and tantalized, Albin sets out to find the real Turkey, not the package of antiquities and quaint customs or even the port-of-call salaciousness that most foreigners settle for. But he's no romantic in search of self-transcendence; he's a flawed but decent guy, a besotted Everyman trying to get to the bottom of a murder.

Peters, a Berliner whose second novel this is, takes the reader on a vivid tour of Istanbul, with savvy-sounding commentary on such aspects as the "floral ornamentation on Islamic art." One theory traces the motif back to the Gardens of Bliss mentioned in the Koran. Another cites the influence of imported Chinese porcelain. "I like the idea of the gardens," says one of the Germans. This reader does, too.

Even travelers who swear by the Rough Guides may be surprised -- and unnerved -- by Albin's forays into Istanbul's underworld. His harrowing excursion to the Gypsy district, which he undertakes in spite of warnings to stay away, speaks eloquently for keeping to well-trodden paths. Peters's dialogue, as rendered in John Cullen's artful translation, is pungent and fraught. At the end of a long, affable conversation with a rug-dealer, Albin is told, "You've lost your game, my friend." The dealer isn't talking about carpets anymore, and it's a chilling moment because until then, Albin's fishing for information had seemed quite skillful.

In the end, though, a book with the elements of a mystery doesn't stay true to form. Peters is more interested in portraying a troubled artist against the backdrop of a culture clash, in exploring the ravages and comforts of excessive drinking, in depicting the heroism and hubris of trying to penetrate a foreign nation's criminal milieu, than in spinning a puzzle-plot. He carries out these intentions so well that, despite leaving some questions unanswered, The Fabric of Night is absorbing and strangely satisfying. ยท

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

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