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My Father’s Books

Luan Starova; Translated by Christina E. Kramer

Publication Year: 2012

In My Father’s Books, the first volume in Luan Starova’s multivolume Balkan Saga, he explores themes of history, displacement, and identity under three turbulent regimes—Ottoman, Fascist, and Stalinist—in the twentieth century. Weaving a story from the threads of his parents’ lives from 1926 to 1976, he offers a child’s-eye view of personal relationships in shifting political landscapes and an elegiac reminder of the enduring power of books to sustain a literate culture.
    Through lyrical waves of memory, Starova reveals his family’s overlapping religious, linguistic, national, and cultural histories. His father left Constantinople as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the young family fled from Albania to Yugoslav Macedonia when Luan was a boy. His parents, cosmopolitan and well-traveled in their youth, and steeped in the cultures of both Orient and Occident, find themselves raising their children in yet another stagnant and repressive state. Against this backdrop, Starova remembers the protected spaces of his childhood—his mother’s walled garden, his father’s library, the cupboard holding the rarest and most precious of his father’s books. Preserving a lost heritage, these books also open up a world that seems wide, deep, and boundless.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page, Copyright

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Translator’s Note

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pp. ix-xi

Luan Starova recalls his father’s words as he sets out to explore the history of his family across the Balkans and through the turbulent years of the twentieth century. In his multivolume Balkan saga he treats themes of history, displacement, and identity. My Father’s Books is the...

Part One

My Father, Our Family, the Books

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pp. 7

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pp. 9

Each new book awakened great joy in my father’s soul. We lived in a small house, and we were a large family. Every inch of space was filled with objects and with our presence. There was no space where even a book could be set down without our accustomed order being disturbed...

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The Fate of the Books

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pp. 10

Of all the tangible things that remained in the world at the end of my father’s life, a possible proof of the lost past is his books. It is also possible that one of the secrets of my parents’ durable, harmonious marriage was my mother’s good-natured encouragement and support of my...

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pp. 11

Even before I had learned to read and write, my father’s books, guarded by my mother’s wakeful eye, served as my playthings. Since then I have had a passion for the large, tightly bound, multicolored volumes and have reveled in them with no thought as to whether I would...

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The Garden

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pp. 12-13

As I matured, something changed in my relationship to my father’s books, to the yellowed registers with their handwriting that nearly overflowed, ready to spill off the page, to the peculiar deeds of lost property, decrees, diplomas with pressed wax seals, miscellaneous...

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The Fountain

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pp. 14

What comes most often to the surface of my memory, other than the garden with its fountain constantly murmuring some piece of our family’s history, is the overhanging balcony, which seemed to keep the house on the edge of departure, of flight...

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The Balcony

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pp. 15-16

When she saw a book that Father had left behind on the balcony, my mother knew that the day before, in that moment between dream and reality, in a flash of insight, her husband must surely have come to that long- sought-after decision, the decision that now in the daylight...

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The Cabinet

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pp. 17-19

One morning, when my mother had gone to the market and my brothers had gone off in various directions, either to school or out with friends, I remained at home alone, absolutely alone. Naturally, my eyes drifted to the cabinet. I noticed that, for the first time, the key was...

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pp. 20-22

My mother had her own ritual way of greeting my father when he came home from work. She would never press him at once about the daily household worries. She always waited for just the right moment. Every minute was filled with the essence of their entire shared life...

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The Life of the Books

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pp. 23

As years passed and my father began to buy more books than he could read, I detected a trace of pleasure in my mother’s expression, not only because there might be more space in the house but also because my father might perhaps have some rest from books in his remaining years...

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The Death of the Manuscript

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pp. 24

As old age galloped across his wrinkled forehead and his eyes lost their former vibrancy, my father journeyed with ever- increasing difficulty through his Ottoman manuscripts. He took to using all kinds of reading lenses. He engaged in an increasingly enfeebled battle with the...

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A Secret

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pp. 25-26

When my father was at work we would take down a book that we did not know how to read, or one rich with pictures, and later return it to its place. We never made a mistake. My father knew that his books disappeared and then returned to their places, and, inwardly pleased...

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Learning about the Deities

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pp. 27

My parents held a discreet and calm faith to which they never called attention in their actions; rather, a need to believe in a singular all-powerful force had coalesced in them after so many deaths in the family, so many relocations to who knows where, so many new adjustments...

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My Father’s Fatherlands

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pp. 28-30

In those rare moments when, bent over his opened books, he considered his fate, seeking solutions to the Balkan history of his family, in those moments when he thought he was fully prepared to begin writing the history of the Balkans through the decline of the three empires...

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My Father’s Languages

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pp. 31-32

When it came time at school for me to choose a foreign language, I asked my father, then deeply engrossed in a book, whether I should study French, English, Russian, or German, just one, or two simultaneously, and, if so, which ones? My father set his glasses down right...

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My Father’s Dictionaries

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pp. 33

In the final years of his life, as he slowly lost the strength to read, my father became less and less alive. When I saw that he no longer read or commented on the books I brought him, but only held them absently in his hands, appearing to read, taking in some meaning that he...

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The Radio

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pp. 34-35

The radio accompanied us through all our moves. It was shaped like a peacock with its feathers open and fanned wide, as if each feather designated a different radio station. In the center of the radio, actually a bit below the center, in the area of the peacock’s head and beak...

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Old Age

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pp. 36

This is how he paced his day, his life, and kept his blood circulating. As was his custom, he would smoke a cigarette or two with the Turkish coffee my mother made for him. His closest family members begged and pleaded with him not to drink and smoke so that he would...

The Books and My Father’s Friends

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pp. 37

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Eastern Dream and Western Dream

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pp. 39-41

Their mutual love of old books and manuscripts united them. Both were captive to a great but unrealizable dream. For my father it was an Eastern dream; for Mr. K., a Western one. In a sense they complemented each other. This was cause for agreement and disagreement...

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pp. 42-43

Most often, it was books that led to friendship; more rarely, friendship to books. Mr. K. was the rarer type of friend. He had studied in Paris in his youth, my father in Constantinople— my father during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the dawn of the era of...

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pp. 44-45

Having left the Balkans in their youth, one to Constantinople, the other to Paris, they had many passions, like all young people, but it was their love of books that remained most engraved upon them. Although they had both studied at great universities, one at the...

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pp. 46

After Mr. K. and my father had exhausted the major political questions they had learned about from listening to both Western and Eastern radio stations, they would usually end up talking about the pains, along with the pleasures, that they derived from their...

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A Boarder in Babel

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pp. 47-48

Mr. K. always came to visit my father either very late or very early in the day. He always arrived with a new book, a new document, a map; it was as if he pulled books out of his very self, from out of his body, from out of thin air. In his hands he always held the first book he wanted...

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Language Quarrels

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pp. 49-50

When my father and Mr. K. could not find just the right word while translating, they swore at both languages and recalled the curse of Babel, that source of imperfection in the order of human affairs. They would find fault with everyone. Then, disrupting the usual quiet in which...

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Balkan Babel

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pp. 51

My mother often heard his whispering over the pages of an opened book. At first, she worried that my father would not return from his books, but in time she got used to it and understood Father’s behavior when books were at issue...

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A Choice

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pp. 52-53

Mr. K. was the first to construct library shelves in his library with rows of bookcases, some of wood and others of metal. First he created the space, and then he filled it with books. He of course arranged the books according to their content, by the subject matter that...

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Sacrifice for Books

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pp. 54-56

It could easily be stated that Mr. K., my father’s friend, had the largest private library in our city. He faithfully spent his whole life constructing his Babel of books in the hope that one day he would be enthroned within it and could then read all the books in the order he had...

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The End of Time

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pp. 57

He spent a great deal of thought on the arrangement of his books. His order made the books alive, ready to radiate their energy. Among the books, in what constituted at the same time a sepulchre of his era, of his time, one’s attention was drawn to the skull of a former...

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The Books in One’s Life

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pp. 58-59

When the people who had most frequently surrounded her became scarce in her life, perhaps due mainly to old age, Professor Nichota increasingly abandoned herself and her trust to books. She secretly wished that her life would be extinguished while she was reading...

Father’s Books, Migrations, Stalinism, the Balkan Wall

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pp. 61

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The Spyglass

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pp. 63-67

Sometime in the 1920s, my father brought home an old spyglass that he had bought in a secondhand store in the Grand Bazaar in Constantinople. The store mainly sold old war trophies and other objects from the Ottoman period. The spyglass had belonged to a Turkish...

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The Globe

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pp. 68-74

There were various systems for notating cartographic information. Here jumbled together were alphabets, faiths, planned itineraries, all left behind on the maps to maintain people’s illusions of former glory. There was also a relief map of the Balkans, made a long time ago...

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The Family Clock

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pp. 75-76

In all our wanderings, eluding expected wars and occupations, always with our books—if not all of them, then always, without fail, the holy ones—as well as the bunch of keys to our abandoned houses, their locks empty of all hope of return, we always took with us the old...

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pp. 77-78

When my mother was young, she completed the only two trips that she took in her lifetime: one to Greece, the other to Italy. Although these travels were a long time ago, she relived them constantly. She embellished them and reworked them in her memory so that, in the...

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The Bomb

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pp. 79-81

During the years of wars and migrations my parents maintained a sort of strategy of silence in front of us children in order to save the family. We never understood why, before we were to move again, our father would suddenly disappear, only to reappear either just before...

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pp. 82-83

During wartime we stayed alone with my mother in our small house by the lake. During our childhood there was more war than peace. Peace came to us only through my mother’s great calm soul. Yes, even during wartime her soul radiated peace, security, and hope...

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The Mother Tongue

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pp. 84-87

What was my mother’s mother tongue? Shortly after her birth she became motherless. Her father brought her a new mother. And so, my mother did not, as they say, imbibe her mother tongue at her mother’s breast. Her father was a prefect during the first decade of the last...

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The Holy Books

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pp. 88-89

If Mother believed in something holy, something that brought her closer to God, she believed in her God- given mission: to protect her offspring, to hold them in her embrace until their wings were strong, and then to let them fly off into the unknown expanses of their...

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Dreams of a Lost Time

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pp. 90-91

The dreams of poor people know no borders; they are similar the world over. The dreams of poor refugee families are a great treasure. Father and Mother often told us that events in our dreams sometimes took place in the abandoned house next to the lake, on the...

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The Power of Languages

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pp. 92-93

Late at night, after she had put us children to bed and when my father no longer wished to listen to his distant radio stations, my mother spent much of the night moving the little arrow in the small window of the radio shaped like a peacock with its feathers fanned out, seeking...

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Rakija and Meze

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pp. 94-95

Mother was a real master at taking little bits of things and turning them into wonderful meze. During the years of poverty and Socialist collectivization, my mother secretly planted some peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, garlic, onion, parsley, and cucumbers in a little plot of...

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The Taste of the Dough

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pp. 96

In her travels to Italy she had made a lasting discovery: how to use the magic of shaping the dough to free us from the sad reality of our poverty and hunger. She was perhaps the first who, before the Italian occupation, brought to her native land the secrets of spaghetti...

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Holiday Tikush

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pp. 97

It was only on festive occasions that my mother made tikush. We children looked forward to holidays most of all because of Mother’s tikush. Tikush is a kind of Balkan pie—of unclear origin, like much else in the Balkans— made of flour, milk, eggs, and chicken...

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Stalin’s Portrait

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pp. 98-100

My father slaved over his books until late in the night. He waited for all of us to fall asleep so he could continue to read and to think, having found new energy from the strength released by our dreams, as he used to joke. My mother did not go to bed before my father did; she...

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Shock Workers

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pp. 101

My father and Mr. K. were busy translating an old text (which, according to Mr. K., was very significant for shedding light on the history of the Balkans) when their attention was disturbed by the voice of a young man from the regional party committee. His voice...

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The Silver Mirror

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pp. 102

My mother was left motherless early in her life. From the mother she never saw she inherited a silver mirror. When she married my father, there, amidst the items in her dowry, shone the old silver mirror. This mirror accompanied us in all our migrations...

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The Medal

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pp. 103-104

For a long time, there, shining among the books, was Father’s silver Order of Socialist Labor, third class, the only medal he received during his long working life. For a long time my father had had a secret wish to receive some sort of decoration or medal; he privately wished...

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pp. 105

Then the holiday of Father’s library was carried through the whole house, out into Mother’s garden, to the road in front of us. In fact, other holidays did not exist for my father; religious ones went by without his notice. Our mother, however, would dress us younger children...

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Ration Books

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pp. 106-107

Families with many children, families of working miners, and families of those with other strenuous jobs had the right to receive extra ration books each month. With these Socialist coupons one could buy a strictly rationed amount of sugar, salt, oil, soap, and other staples. At first...

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A Coin in the Trevi Fountain

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pp. 108-109

My mother often recalled the Trevi Fountain when, kneeling beside the fountain that was the source of her garden’s beauty, she told us about her long- ago trip to Rome. We could never understand why it was always here that she would tell us about the Trevi Fountain...

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La Rinascente

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pp. 110-115

This was the first time in her life she had seen such a brightly colored book, with its numerous photographs of different outfits and household items. Though she had seen many other books in Father’s library, this was the first time that a book had been given to her, one...

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The Balkan Wall

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pp. 116-120

Because of those accursed lines in the Balkans we were always in exile. We carried the borders in our very core. Every war—and wars were frequent in the Balkans— brought with it new borders along who knew which route, severing the land, the families, and life...

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pp. 121-122

In her later years, when the quiet sunset drew near her, after she had set her children on their way, after she had welcomed her daughters- in-law and delighted in her grandchildren and great- grandchildren, after my father died, my mother began to feel deep within her that the time...

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pp. 123-124

Never in our lives did we see our father cry, really cry. Nor did our mother cry, or at least we never saw it. How many torments had they experienced, how much had they suffered in their lives, with us, in their wanderings in the wilderness, in the labyrinth of our exile. In their...

Part Two

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The Margins of My Father’s Books: The Constantinople Dream, in Search of Lost Time

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pp. 127-130

My father’s spirit lingered most of all in his books. In his emigrant fate the books stifled and covered over that second personality that, in those who are uprooted, is by nature always pronounced. My father succeeded in passing on to us children, to all his children, his great...

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The Third Exit

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pp. 131-132

There, in the scorched heart of Constantinople, there where Atatürk would wage his final battle for Turkey after the abrogation of the sultan’s rule and then the caliphate, there in the flaming battle for the survival of all the subject citizens— all the peoples that had just recently...

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The True Path

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pp. 133-134

When my father was considering the various relocations of his family, his thoughts would quickly reach the intersection of two paths. One led eastward, toward Constantinople and Cairo, the other toward the West, to Rome and Paris, and, from there, to America...

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At a Crossroads in the Labyrinth

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pp. 135-138

When he entered Constantinople for the first time, he was overcome with an intense excitement. This two- thousand-year-old city had the means to captivate his young soul. Intoxicated by its unparalleled splendors, he walked around this enchanting city for days and...

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Between Constantinople Heaven and Balkan Hell

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pp. 139-140

In Constantinople my father escaped several traps to which he could easily have fallen prey had he not from the very beginning made peace with himself and with his decision to return to his family, to whom he would remain most loyal. Returning was a more compelling fate...

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pp. 141-142

When my father was leaving Constantinople with the books he had collected for the towering Babel of his own Balkan library, he also took with him many books written in the old Arabic script, whose demise was being prepared by Atatürk’s reforms...

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The Game of Defeat and Victory

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pp. 143-144

My father would often walk deep in thought from the Dolmabahçe Palace and, without realizing it, would arrive at the Karaköy Bridge. Here he was captivated by one of the most wondrous romantic vistas in Constantinople, with its fantastic towering Dolmabahçe...

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Janissary Fate

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pp. 145-147

What could he take away from the spiritual remains of this destroyed Ottoman time, of this damned Babylon with its jumbled alleyways, with its emptied labyrinths— harems, marketplaces, cemeteries, mountains, a Babel of lost illusions for many generations. Like other...

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The Key of Destiny

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pp. 148-150

What was to be my father’s final legacy from the Ottoman Empire before his departure from Constantinople? The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was taking place not only in Constantinople during that time he saw unfolding before his eyes. He was certain that the...

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The Waves of Illusions

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pp. 151-152

He came to Constantinople with his old childhood dream of settling accounts with the Ottoman era and to discover the curse at its very roots, to discover when those roots had become entangled, when everyone in the Balkans was left to be pounded by the waves of...

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The Debt to Time

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pp. 153-154

He often stood before the Golden Horn, as if before an imaginary Balkan altar, to tell his troubles before the many witnesses, before the many citizens of all the Balkan nations who found themselves after the fall of the Ottoman Empire rushing to solve the great dilemma...

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Between East and West

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pp. 155- 157

There are moments in life when you know who you are but then are condemned to keep on seeking yourself throughout your life, searching along one thread of existence for those moments in time when, in a flash of insight, you know yourself...

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Sea Dream

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pp. 158-159

He followed the blue clouds of pigeons’ wings that rose above the tall minarets of the mosques. In the distance, the bittersweet strains of a mandolin flowed on as if calling to the opposite shore. There were the white walls of the Dolmabahçe Palace, which shimmered as it...

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Holidays in Defeats

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pp. 160

My father imagined the palace on one of the great religious or imperial holidays or during victory celebrations, most often after great defeats of Balkan nations. Here in this true cascade of crystal, gold, and silver, silk and velvet, created from the victor’s spoils, was everything...

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pp. 161-162

No matter how often he passed the Galata Bridge by the Golden Horn on his way to the oldest part of Constantinople, his thoughts turned once again to the great themes of the Ottoman era that would not disappear with the end of the empire...

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Tattered Fate

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pp. 163-166

Afterward, lost in his thoughts, as he passed by the Great Eyüp Mosque, playfully decorated in faience and marble, animated by the flight of the pigeons circling eternally around its towering minaret, my father would turn his gaze and thoughts toward Sultan...

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Bartering with Fate

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pp. 167-169

A good part, if not the better part, of my father’s life was still ahead of him, the part in which he would interpret the enigmatic Ottoman era, the tragedy of the Janissaries, and the Ottoman script. He set aside the majority of his time for discovering the secrets held in that...

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The Dream of the Books

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pp. 170-172

It is not possible, it will never be possible, for a single war to solve the problems of an era. No matter how big it is, no matter how just for some and unjust for others, war will impose new borders. What if these borders sever the souls of people, families, gardens, dreams, time, the...

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The Eastern Sword of Damocles

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pp. 173-174

For a long time my father kept his meeting with Atatürk out of his biography, especially during the Stalinist era. He hid it even from us children. His wisdom in life was based on his power to conceal the truth when all those close to him thought it should be told. My father...

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The Fedora

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pp. 175-178

The history of his people stopped at the shores of this wondrous lake with the most translucent waters in the world, with kingdoms of algae in which the silver trout reigned supreme. It was said that this lake was a million years old. The lake was sacred. Its waves were awaited...

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Time Discovered

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pp. 179-182

Before my eyes were all his old books, his manuscripts, maps, notes, notebooks, old geographic maps, and proclamations, those that had been read and those left unfinished. There were those that had been studied and those that remained unexamined. All had a...

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Documents I

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pp. 183-185

In Mother’s soul, the hands of some great clock advanced— most often by the sound of Father’s footsteps, that distinctive tread on the cobblestones distinguished easily from others’. The sound of those footsteps noticeably calmed her and brought peace to the household...

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Documents II

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pp. 186-187

My mother intuitively sensed my father’s next steps, when fate offered no choice. They had spent so much of their lives together, avoiding the same traps, that they created some sort of agreement, a shared sense of life’s weight, as if one continued into the other, and in that...

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Documents III

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pp. 188-189

My father immediately contacted the archives about his great discovery. He asked them to inform his family that he would remain another day on the road. The courier from the archives who should have called had a drink somewhere en route and did not get...

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The Meaning of the Silence

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pp. 190-191

When my brothers were approaching adulthood and our only sister was ready to be engaged to be married, my father was once again gripped by the Eastern dream, like the one he had when he left Constantinople in the twenties; he could not imagine that historical events would...

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The Documents (Epilogue)

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pp. 192-194

My father searched once again for the lost Ottoman time in the Balkans, for his own delight, as he often said, but his friends, schooled Orientalists, specialists in Turkology, would say to him that it was a historical mission. The day would come, they told him, when...

Perhaps the Real Ending

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pp. 195

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Borrowed Book

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pp. 197

My father treated his books as if they were sacred objects. He lent books from his library only to those readers he believed worthy of reading them, and then he did not worry at all whether the books were returned to him. The books were always returned to him...

E-ISBN-13: 9780299287931
E-ISBN-10: 0299287939
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299287948
Print-ISBN-10: 0299287947

Page Count: 136
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Starova, Luan -- Childhood and youth.
  • Authors, Macedonian -- 20th century -- Biography.
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