Jason Goodwin wades into the historical fray, fists full of zesty historical facts. And they work as story-telling, too. It helps that Goodwin's chosen setting may be the most colorful, central, cosmopolitan city that man has ever built: Istanbul/Constantinople. It helps that the city, a bridge between Europe and Asia, a jewel of art, a focus of commerce and intrigue for many centuries, a seat of the classical, then the Byzantine, then the Muslim world, was full of people from elsewhere — people who might well be eager for any scrap of information they needed to understand the complicated city in which they were trying to make their way.
Thus, Goodwin turns a greeting into a lesson on Byzantine iconography:
"`Yashim — the angel!' Grigor opened his arms wide across a desk piled with packets and papers done up in purple ribbon.Or, on yet another facet of the city's colorful history:
"The angel was Grigor's little joke, not one that Yashim particularly shared. As Grigor has once explained, Byzantine iconography represented angels as eunuchs. Angels stood on the threshold between men and God; eunuchs between men — and women. Both were intermediaries, dedicated to serve."
"`Viking, Yashim. You've heard of the Vikings, surely? ... They scuffed Europe into what we call the Dark Ages. Most notable product, after widows: Russia.'And then, in an acknowledgement that must have made Goodwin smile as he wrote it, "`History lesson over. I don't know that it's been any good. Sun's gone. Let's have a drink.'"
"Yashim was leaning forward, listening intently. Now he shook his head. `What do you mean, Russia? Or is it a Polish joke?'
"Palewski looked pained. `Not at all. The Vikings didn't just sail across oceans. They used the Baltic rivers, too. ... Up the Volga, down the Dnieper. The Black Sea. Constantinople. Easy. ...'
"`And that's the origin of Russia?'
"`Broadly speaking, yes. ...'"
© Peter Rozovsky 2009