Atatürk, by Andrew Mango

March 24, 2013 at 20:21 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century) (, , , )




Andrew Mango announces his rules clearly in beginning this book with a brusque and stern explanation of the Turkish grammar he intends on using, a hard rebuke towards prevailing racist western attitudes towards Turkey, and a firm reminder of his credentials as an historian who has searched exhaustively through sources Turkish and English for what, the subtext thunders, is a comprehensive, definitive, and especially serious biography.

This forbidding introduction then unfolds surprisingly into a spellbinding and rich tableau, and a deliciously-rendered summary of Turkish and European history ancient and modern; often straying, frequently magniloquent, always utterly and devastatingly pertinent. It is genuinely surprising how well Mango manages his charge: Atatürk bears all the hallmarks of a stiff and fatally padded book, wherein an author seeks to prove his mettle by including every anecdote, chasing down every family tree, dwelling on the minutiae of every source he can be sure nobody else has included in their biography. To borrow a phrase, this is indeed a loose and baggy monster, and while it would be difficult to claim that any particular event or period in a man’s life is irrelevant in the discovery of the whole, there are chapters that drag endlessly and which might have been truncated, particularly in Mustafa Kemal’s early life.

“Atatürk earned his place in history by directing the successful resistance of the Muslim inhabitants of Anatolia against the occupation and attempted partition of their country. Many others took part in the preparation, planning and execution of the struggle. But from the moment he was chosen chairman of the Erzurum congress in 1919 to the time when the victory of the Turkish resistance received international recognition at Lausanne in 1923, he was in charge of the forces of Turkish nationalism.”


Of all the books to compare this to, it might well be compared to Tolkien, but with a keener sense of purpose. The quality of the writing is impossible to condemn, but the grinding thoroughness with which Mango attends to each scene in the theatre of Kemalism is impressive, to say the least. As churlish as it is to say, there are moments when readers will grow relieved that Kemal’s life was not another twenty years longer.

It is difficult for a reader unaccustomed to Turkish history to manage the unfamiliar names littered prolifically through Mango’s history; particularly seeing that so many of the principle characters share titles or given names in common. The author’s parenthetical use of the surnames that Atatürk introduced late in his reign is a confusing anachronism that aids identification at the expense of interrupting the lucidity of the writing.

Any good historical text ought to be judged not only on its readability, but on its voice. Andrew Mango’s history is peculiar, in that he comes across as an unabashed Turkophile, but without a great deal of antipathy or admiration for any particular faction of the nascent Turkish Republic. Thus, he has no sympathy at all for the Kurds, British, or French; and treats the Greeks with something approaching open hostility. At the same time, it is difficult to tell whether or not he truly approved of the methods Atatürk used in silencing Kâzım Karabekir, or what he thought of the Young Turks. He does not even reveal whether he is a believer in Kemalism until the final chapter, Aftermath, which is a brilliantly insightful essay on the entirety of Atatürk’s life and government, and on Turkey through the Twentieth Century.

There are shorter books and easier books, and probably many which would confer similar benefits to Mango’s biography. But it is truly a joy to be in the hands of an author that the reader can trust, and then forgive for the length of the road and a handful of inconveniences along it. In delving into the recent history of Turkey, why start anywhere else?


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