This is not a book about Istanbul. This is a book about the Galata Bridge in Istanbul.
The choice of focusing on a single bridge is rather smart as writing a book on the whole rise and fall (and rise and fall and rise..) of Constantinople would have required too much time being surpassed in a few years by the vertiginous growth of the half-European half-Asian metropolis.
If you want to read and learn more about Istanbul, you should get some Pamuk. Geert Mak himself is aware of this and never tries to go any further. Mak is a skillful Dutch journalist, not an acclaimed Nobel Prize winner and the bard of the Bosphorus.
"The Bridge" is essentially the story of the five versions of the Galata bridge built in a range of 160 years and always spanning the Golden Horn. This may sound like a boring summary of this book, but in fact it is not. Geert Mak made some research and spent some time himself on the bridge in order to give an interesting and factual account on both: history and personal stories revolving around the Galata Köprüsü.
What Mak understood is that this bridge is more than a link between two shores, it's a symbol. Among those who crossed the Galata bridge in the last two centuries there were emperors and soldiers, courtiers and eunuchs, commuters and merchants, pickpockets and tourists. The bridge reflected Istanbul's fortunes and misfortunes, its aspiration of being a western-like town and its inclination of looking eastwards and southwards. By observing the daily haunters of the bridge or simply talking with them, Mak attempts to draw a larger picture of the Turkish society with mixed feelings and outcome.
By quoting the descriptions given to the bridge and its strolling mankind by travelers, journalists and novelists of the past times (I didn't know that the Italian chauvinist writer Edmondo De Amicis was so fond of Istanbul!), the author manages in crafting a nice but somehow plain and over-rational book.
Perhaps what lacks in Mak is the capacity of being emotional, poetic, not only well-documented on the bridge, but changed by the bridge. And this sort of impersonal coldness affects "The Bridge".
We never know the reason why Mak decided to fly to Istanbul for writing this book and we are never told why he chose to focus on the Galata Bridge. These omissions lead to the suspect that Geert Mak was sent in Turkey by his editors and not because of his fascination for the Golden Horn. Fair enough?
I read this book in the right time and in the right place. As it was a present coming from a dear friend of mine. Thumbs up for Giulia!
Now let's just suppose I crushed into "All Souls" just a couple of years ago when I was far from Oxford and completely unaware of going to settle up there in a few months time.
Well, in that case, I would have thought that this novel was well written and Marias certainly got brains, but would not praise much else.
For "All Souls" is a sort of diary, a personal account on Oxford in the 1980s as seen from a Spanish visiting professor. The observations, notes and reflections of the author are either profound or frivolous, but always well focused and straight to the point.
And yet, without knowing Oxford, without having lived in Oxford most of what Marias wrote could sound rather pointless.
Lucky me, then. I saw the dons walking around in apparent hurry. I met the beggars on the pavements. I investigated through the shelves of the bookshops. And I even heard about the solemn high tables in the colleges' dining rooms. Marias was there and left.
There is a romance in this novel, yes. But it doesn't seem to matter. It's a temporary liaison, it's going nowhere and it stands in the background. The author is far more passionate while writing about the half-forgotten novelist Arthur Machen or about the railway station in Didcot.
I think this book looks at Oxford in a very good way: awe and nonchalance walk side by side.