Literature, society, and me

As you know, I devote this blog to two themes with radically different discourses, literary arts and social analysis. The former is a discourse meant to appeal to all people who use and love language. However the vocabulary and tropes of the latter, including graphs and highly technical language, are too often accessible only to the specialist, and that's a pity. We need both: works of the imagination that explore the possibilities of language to suggest new possibilities of existence, and observation and measurement to understand the real limits of our present existence.

This is why my works of imagination — novels, short stories — are usually also explorations of real present or past situations. And my works of social analysis seek to tell their stories with the fluidity of a novel or epic poem, that is, social analysis as literature.

And now, in just a few weeks, you will be able to read my new novel, A Gift for the Sultan. It's written, edited, and with cover design approved, so all that remains before printing and posting as an e-book (cheap) are two dozen minor corrections to the interior design. (If you'd like a review copy and seriously intend to write a review, just let me know.)

This is my most ambitious effort to date combining literary play and social research, so you will be able to judge how well I've been able to pull it off. The setting is Constantinople and its environs in 1402, when that celebrated capital of Eastern Christianity was on the verge of collapse before an Ottoman and mostly Muslim siege. Getting the place and time right required a lot of research in all my languages (which regrettably include neither medieval Greek nor Turkish — I had to make do with French, Spanish and English). What fascinated me and kept me going was the multi phased conflict of that time, with so many parallels to the attack on New York in 2001 (our "9/11"), the siege and bombardment of Sarajevo in the 1990s, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. The chronological  (more than six centuries) and the technological distance (siege machines had to be much closer to the walls than today) helped to imagine objectively, if not dispassionately. I did get emotionally involved in the lives of those historical and fictional characters, and I hope you do, too. The dynamics of power, tribal solidarity, religious passion and cynicism — at least as I've imagined them, I think correctly — are not so different from today's. But soon, very soon, you will be able to read the novel (386 pages) and judge for yourself.

And this brings me (by the roundabout circuitry in my brain) to Amartya Sen's concept of "human development" as a measure of a social system's success: judging a system by the physical well-being, cultural development (literacy, etc.) and social opportunities of its citizenry in general, rather than by its GDP (which may be very unevenly distributed) or military triumphs or the size and splendor of the monuments glorifying its leader.

In the period of my novel, Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos of the Byzantine Empire (he called it "Romania") seems to have aspired to such a measure (you can read his letters to his son, advising on good government), but there was little he could do for the "human development" of his subjects in the precarious defense situation of his diminishing empire. Sultan "Yildirim" ("Thunderbolt") Bayezid of the Ottomans, however, held exactly the opposite notion, that his subjects existed only to enhance his power and glory.

But, as Amartya Sen might have predicted, it was Manuel and not the aggressive Bayezid who survived this episode. To read more about cross-country comparisons developed from Sen's approach, check out the essay (in English or Spanish, as you choose) by Gustav Ranis in the Revista Latinoamericana de Desarrollo Humano. To read more about the conflict between Sultan Bayezid and Manuel II's Constantinople, read A Gift for the Sultan (soon).