CULTURE

Tale of love set in stormy 18th century

An artist between two worlds, Lebanese poet and novelist Venus Khoury-Ghata is coming from Paris – where she has resided for the past 30 years – to the French Institute of Athens on Monday to present the Greek translation of her latest Prix Baie des Anges award-winning novel, «Le moine, l’Ottoman et la femme du grand argentier» (translated by Dina Sideri for Agyra Press). Born in Beirut, 68-year-old Khoury-Ghata is an intellectual who is rooted in the multicultural (at least in the pre-World War II era) world of the Mediterranean, bilingual and open-minded to any challenge that may dispel the ingrained stereotypes that keep many parts of the region in the half-light. In her latest novel, Khoury-Ghata takes readers on a journey to the 18th century Ottoman Empire: back to a time of pirate raids, when the monks of Spain’s Trinitarian Order rescued prisoners and slaves from Moor pirates, and the Sublime Porte reigned. For the writer, the novel is a love story, but also a window onto a part of history that, paradoxically, has a lot in common with Greece’s. Khoury-Ghata explained more about her work in an interview with Kathimerini before coming to Athens. Even though your novel is historical on one level, it is also about the hero’s journey to self-discovery. Why did you select such a specific historical context? The choice of the historical context can be attributed to many different factors. First of all is my interest in the countries of the Mediterranean. All of my novels are set in this region. The choice of historical context is also due to the period itself, a time of brutality in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, which occupied many Mediterranean countries. I was also interested in the fact that certain things, such as piracy on the open seas, were forgotten. Pirates, sometimes even with the help of captains, would loot and hold hostage simple fishermen or merchants coming from Genoa or elsewhere, which explains why he [the hero] turns to the Trinitarian Order in Spain. How did you come to know Islam? Islam was familiar either in the form of the conqueror or in the form of the subjects of my Maronite Christian ancestors, who lived as refugees in the snow-capped mountains of Lebanon. There they were safe for five months of the year; it was their shelter against the Ottoman forces. There seems to be an interest in Arabic culture in France. Is this interest confined to intellectual circles only? The interest of the French does not go very far beyond their own borders. Only the intellectuals are interested in what is happening further afield. The polls conducted on the European Constitution indicate as much. Safely confined within their own borders, the French want to limit the interests of other countries, and the most telling example is their objection to Turkey’s joining the European Union. Were there any surprises in your research for the novel? My research was turned around when religious historian Andre Mandouze gave me a book on the state of the Catholic Church in Algeria in the 19th century. That was when I stopped writing a book about the angelic nature of the Trinitarian monks who gave up their lives to save pirates’ prisoners. I found out that the monks of the Trinitarian Order in Spain had made a fortune by becoming the accomplices of the ruler of Algeria and by extension, the Sublime Porte. I began rewriting the story with the new information. You write in short, sharp phrases. Does this style come from your being a poet? I detest drawn-out analytical novels with endless descriptions of landscapes and events. I think the success of my books is largely due to their intense, quick-paced style. «Les fiancees du cap tenes» has been translated into 13 languages and has sold over 150,000 copies of the pocket-book edition. «Le moine, l’Ottoman et la femme du grand argentier» is following a similar course. The world you describe seems a distant one, yet there are similarities with the present. Were you interested in drawing these similarities or were you simply relating a love story? My novel is first and foremost a story of love and then an historical book. That distant world has things in common with our century. The opening of the Mediterranean and other countries had begun then. Pirates are now replaced by the various organized crime rings, be they Italian or Russian. Nevertheless, my desire to tell a story or stories would mutate on the end of my pen as the characters took me wherever they wanted… Venus Khoury-Ghata will be in Athens on Monday at 8 p.m., at the French Institute of Athens, 31 Sina, Kolonaki, tel 210.339.8600.