Vera Mutafchieva
Academician , PhD in History, researcher, author and journalist


The Cem Case
Miljenko Jergović

Recently, the Zagreb publishing house Sandorf published Vera Mutafchieva's Slučaj Džem (The Cem Case), translated by Ksenija Banović. According to the translator, this is Mutafchieva's first translation within the former Yugoslavia. Assoc. Prof. Penka Barakova has made great contributions to the success of the publication as its editor. Here we publish the review of the great Croatian writer Miljenko Jergović for the novel.

The story of the unfortunate prince and the sultan without a sultanate, from time immemorial part of official Ottoman history, was used by Ivo Andrić as an important episode in his book The Damned Yard (Prokleta avlija). This shortest novel of his (or the longest short story) – according to contemporaries and the writer – is the result of radical cuts to a much longer text. The Damned Yard is therefore a fragment of a never-completed book that began decades before the Travnik Chronicle, The Bridge on the Drina, The Woman from Sarajevo, Andrić's wartime novels, but was not completed and printed until 1954, when the writer was already 62 years old.

The Damned Yard – this posthumous story, an account of the life of Fr. Peter, where all other stories are intertwined, part of his life, is a story about the tragically detached from reality young man Chamil, told by Haim, a frightened Jew, so that finally through Chamil to introduce the story of Cem Sultan.

Cem Sultan is not a personification of Andrić. However, he is an image of Chamil's madness and Haim's fear. They both tell Cem's story. Andric could not tell it because it was neither Bosnian nor his. Although he is a Turk or a Turkophile, at least when it comes to take roots in the era, Andrić is far from that Bursa of Cem Sultan. But his destiny attracted him so much that he had to ‘dress’ her in the destiny of one of his typical characters, such as Chamil. Through his madness, the writer reveals his understanding of this world. In the way Chamil moves away from us and dies, it is as if the experience of the concentration camps of our century is intertwined, as if Chamil had already lived in Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma.

In 1966, 12 years after the publication of The Damned Yard and 5 years after Ivo Andrić received the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, the novel The Cem Case was published in Sofia. Its author is Vera Mutafchieva, professor of Ottoman history, winner of the Herder Prize (1980). Simultaneously with her work as a professional scientist, she created and published about thirty novels – mostly historical. She approaches the fiction of history in a way similar to the work of the Serbian historian and writer Radovan Samardžić, whose great prose-historiographical narrative about Mehmed Pasha Sokolović is closer and more impressive to me as a reader than Andrić's novel about Mehmed's Bridge. The Cem Case is Vera Mutafchieva's most famous novel. There are a dozen editions in Bulgaria, it has been translated into many world languages, but it seems – again only in my opinion, it has not enjoyed deserved attention and well-deserved fame. It is a book that – like the great novels of Ismail Kadare or Orhan Pamuk – belongs to the world. And it was written before them. It is true that The Cem Case belongs primarily to Andrić's world, and was written 12 years after The Damned Yard. Did Vera Mutafchieva read Andric's story about Cem Sultan? The question is not so important, but the answer still interests us.

Exactly fifty years after the first edition, The Cem Case was also published in Croatia by Sandorf Publishing House, translated by Ksenija Banović. To a large extent, this is not just a translation, but a new writing of Vera Mutafchieva's novel, stylized in the Croatian language. Striving in the novel of the Ottoman and European XV centuries not to include any modern word, not one that would have felt non-existent at the time, respecting the historical, sociolinguistic and literary dynamics of the Croatian language, reminding it of its Turkish, Persian and Arabic words, the translator has crafted a creative approach, which is almost unprecedented in the modern translation practice in our country. If I had read this book without prior information about it, I would not have been able to assume that it was not an original text written in Croatian, but a translation. There is no greater compliment for the translator.

The author conceived her novel as a trial against the self-proclaimed Sultan Cem, which is realized in the distant undated future based on the testimonies of those who knew him. Witness the dead, some of whom are historical figures, others are the product of the imagination, Cem's relatives and friends. The only judge in this process is the reader before whom the case unfolds and under whose direction the process continues. And its duration depends only on the time it takes to read the book. A reader like me reads it for seven days, trying to lengthen the 540 pages of the novel as much as possible. Then I decided to read The Damned Yard one more time.

Cem's witnesses: Pierre D'Aubusson – Grand Master of the Order of Saint John, under whose rule in Rhodes, and then in France the unfortunate sultan found himself; Grand Vizier Nishanji Mehmed Pasha – Prime Minister of the Imperial Government at the time of the death of Sultan Mehmed II; the poet Saadi – Cem's gentle friend and last life support; Qaitbay – Egyptian sultan; Mehmed's old aunt – Seljuk Khatun, as well as several others – are the voices of this novel, in whose testimonies Cem's whole life is inscribed. The voices differ from each other. Their attitude to the self-proclaimed sultan, whose voice we do not hear, is different. In his trial before history, he remains silent.

Each of the witnesses, especially those whose testimonies have historical significance, presents themselves with opinions from the future. Of course, they all know what happened after their deaths. The dead are omniscient if they appear before the court as dead. And if Cem is on trial, then the court only makes sense from the perspective of the judge and his time. Vera Mutafchieva is not one of those naïvist writers in the genre of historical novels who expect the reader to return to the past. She leaves him in his own time, in which she translates the epoch and all its real and imaginary characters.

Vera Mutafchieva wrote The Cem Case during the first decade of Todor Zhivkov's rule, a time of relative liberalization of Bulgarian society (compared to the years of Valko Chervenkov), when we [i.e. in Yugoslavia] were the European West. Or we imagined it to be so. Unraveling the relationship between Cem and Saadi, the author tells an openly homoerotic tale in an extremely natural way. And there is nothing shocking in this tale. As if before that Bulgarian literature was full of homos and lesbians, as if men's love in communist Bulgaria had not been prosecutable. However, this is not a historiographical fact that she should have followed. It is a question of that truth which is above historical factography; truth about something that only true literature can tell.

Cem does not speak the languages of the West – neither Latin nor French. In the beginning, his translator was the runaway islamized brother from the Order of Saint John. The impressive image of Frank Suleiman seems to have come down from some of today's television news. Saadi would later learn French so he could translate for Cem. However, the misunderstanding is not only linguistic. Nor does it apply to Cem's prejudices against the West and infidels. The basis of the misunderstanding is the refusal of the West to conduct a dialogue with the East, if the dialogue is not conducted under its conditions and in accordance with political and ideological conditions. To talk to the West, you have to be a Westerner. Everything else is an illusion. They just didn't want to understand the East, so they didn't understand it. This is the thesis of Vera Mutafchieva.

After arriving in Rhodes with his army, from where he was transferred to France and moved from one palace to another, Cem became a prisoner of the Knights of Malta. The secular authorities tried for him later on and the affair eventually reached out to the pope in Rome. Matthias Corvinus was also interested in his services. Such are the historical facts. But what did all these people intend to do with Cem? Why did they need him? The church was preparing for a crusade against Bayazid and wanted to use Cem as an iconic figure. In fact, they wanted to do the same thing that Americans were doing for the last twenty years, when they overthrew local rulers everywhere in the Muslim world – whether these had been democratically elected or had come to rule by violence – and put their own people, rebels, and dissidents in their place. In the 15th century, Cem was just such a figure. And Matthias Corvinus (whose experience was still Eastern) sought in him an ally with whose help to strike Turkey, but without any ambition to change its way of life, to Christianize it or, in modern terms, to secularize it.

The Cem case has a devastating effect on the local epic legend – as Serbian as it is Croatian – for the Turks as terrible occupiers who destroyed our cultural identities and prevented us from developing into the so-called European cultural context. A very similar epic legend prevails in Bulgarian culture before, during and after the communists. Mutafchieva opposes this radically and very boldly. She does it as a passionate historian of the Ottoman Empire, in love with the object of her professional interest, but there is something more important: perhaps a bias towards the losers, and perhaps something much more dangerous – an affinity for traitors. And the unfortunate Cem is both. But he is also something third kind. He is a political emigrant. Introducing in her novel witnesses who testified in his favor, Vera Mutafchieva in 1966 in the center of Bulgaria and under the nose of Todor Zhivkov testified in favor of political emigrants and traitors to the motherland, as there were too many in this country.

One of the witnesses in this novel is Hussein Bey, Bayazid's envoy to Rhodes, who is negotiating the fate of Cem. He recounts how Bayazid once told him that the lack of hypocrisy was the main difference between Turks (Muslims) and Europeans (Christians). Of course, when someone realizes this, he himself becomes hypocritical. However, take a good look at these sentences of Hussein and Vera: “While remaining true to my duty, it seems to me that I must draw your attention to the only flaw I found in my master: Bayazid Khan was deeply and consistently hypocritical. He always looked at himself from the side, adjusting his appearance and his behavior to the side view, building in front of everyone some desired image. So when he mentioned to me the lack of hypocrisy as a major trait of our manners, I became obstinate. It is true that this is the difference between Islam and Christianity. In a society where violence prevails, we have not denied that we have to enforce ourselves, that we will continue to do so in the future. Our means were the means of the time, but Christianity rejected these means, even though it had developed them to perfection. It reproached us for preaching destruction, and we responded with another rebuke: Christianity destroyed while preaching ‘peace and love’.”

This was the case in the 15th century, according to the imagination, but also according to the knowledge of Vera Mutafchieva, as it was in 1966, when she put the last point of this book, but to a much greater extent it is the same today. Read the quoted words once again and translate them in the context of today's ‘wars against terrorism’, but also in the context of the words and deeds of contemporary Croatian church prelates...

In the blank margins of the book next to the page number, I write down extracted words that remind me of something that I would like to remember, go back to, or with which I want to make something of my own. In the face of the dark forces of time, in the face of life and in the face of people, we will need someone else's words to protect us. On page 364 of the Croatian edition of The Cem Case, there are words extracted from a more detailed sentence that do not give me peace these days. The unfortunate man speaks when everyone has left him, slandered him, imprisoned him, and in fact dehumanized him, all in the name of state, political and church reasons: but I will be human – even though I am not in the ledger of any country. And this is exactly what Cem Sultan comes down to at the end of his life. Miraculously, through the personality of the unfortunate Chamil, it is inscribed in Andrić's interpretation as well. Chaim is spoken of by the Jew Haim, and the late Fra Peter knew him ... Finally, what does it mean not to be in the ledgers of any country? This also means being without documents, without a passport and without citizenship. But it also means being an angry loner who is at war with the state whose documents he owns. The state is evil: if it doesn't kill you, if it doesn't subdue you, it will hide you, it will erase you from all ledgers.

To protect himself from the West, to ignore Cem, the most powerful weapon the church holds in its hands, Bayazid paid an amount equal to half of his state budget each year. His brother cost him so much, and then, according to testimony, he said, “A sultan cannot afford to have a brother.” By the way, the Sistine Chapel was built and painted from this and other similar Turkish money.

Vera Mutafchieva was born in 1929 in Sofia. She lived for eighty years. She died on June 9, 2009 in her hometown. She was a single mother of two. Her daughter committed suicide when she was thirty. Vera Mutafchieva was glorified and loved. A year before her death, she was told she was a secret police agent. But God knows who is the informer in this situation and informed about whom. Her reputation in her homeland remains intact.

Her father's name was Peter. Before the war he was a full professor at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, the same in which his daughter will defend her doctoral dissertation. He was a specialist in medieval history and a Byzantine scholar. He died surprisingly on May 2, 1943, before the publication of the two-volume History of the Bulgarian people, which was to be the work of his life. Shortly afterwards came the liberation, the sovietization of Bulgaria and the prescribed communism. Peter Mutafchiev was declared a bourgeois scientist and an accomplice of the enemy. It is absolutely certain that it is not easy to grow up in the shadow of such a father.

Once, and not in a trivial way, Petar Mutafchiev touched on Croatian culture. For the third volume of the Croatian Encyclopedia, whose editor and creator is Mate Ujević [Croatian lexicographer and publicist], he wrote a large, beautiful and broadly tailored article about Bulgaria, which is still easy to read today. It has remained untouched by time, by all the political upheavals and revolutions, the influence of which is strongly felt in the newer handbooks here. Seventy years later, in front of us in all its glory is his daughter's novel. Let's repeat: thanks to Ksenija Banović. In The Cem Case, Vera Mutafchieva, interpreting the highlights of the Ottoman era and among them – the depth of the fall of a tragic prince – interprets herself and her father, and above all the time in which we outlived her.

A lot has been written and spoken – especially while it was still fashionable to write about literature – about that unfortunate metaphor of Stanko Lasić [Croatian literary critic, historian and essayist], according to which today Serbian literature is as close to Croatians as it is the Bulgarian. Many words of condemnation have been leveled against the old professor – both by those who have felt affected because they are still reading something, and even more so by those who have been affected, even though they no longer read anything – neither Croatian nor Serbian, nor Bulgarian literature. To me, what Lasić said seemed a little distorted: when one reads Vera Mutafchieva, one begins to think seriously that Bulgarian literature should become as close to him as Serbian literature. Regardless of the language.
And what should be my sentence to Cem Sultan? There is no answer. To answer this question, I will need at least fifty pages after a parallel study of The Cem Case and The Damned Yard.

Jutarnji List (abridged translation), April 23, 2016



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