13 July 2013

Note: the writer pseudonym, Anna Notaras, is taken from this most remarkable book, a bestseller in its time.

Mika Waltari is probably Finland's best known author and a true god of historical novels. No matter on which of those books you get your hands on, the richness of details, the precision and the incredibly vivid historical pictures will recommend such writing as top notch.

Having read the dramatic novel Mikael Karvajalka, I immediately declared it as the best work I ever laid eyes on. Intense, detailed, philosophical, deeply anchored in life, colourful and tragic, it was a deliciously intricate work of art. When I emerged myself into The Dark Angel though, I had to go through it for two times consecutively. One year later, for two more times again.

The Dark Angel or Johannes Angelos is set in the moment of the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (1453). Waltari used historical and literary documents such as the diary of
Nicolo Barbaro to create a detailed account of the plans, strategies and the very siege of the city.
The Siege of Constantinople 1453


The Dark Angel is written in diary form. It tells the tale of Greek-blooded Ioannis Anghelos, aged 40, mysterious wanderer coming from Western Europe, now settled in Constantinople, the glorious heart of the Byzantine Empire (15th century).

In a time of great political unrest, he is being constantly spied and eventually hunted for his past involvement with Mehmet, the sultan now threatening the great city and the whole Christendom. Deeply committed to his faith, Ioannis's goal is nothing close to materialistic. Redemption and eternal life of the spirit are his only coveted prizes, and therefore he is willing and ready to die defending Constantinople.

However, his already complicated and risky situation is made even more difficult as he falls in love unexpectedly. The feeling is mutual, but the woman he desires seems to be from a least desirable family - and Ioannis does get many serious threats because of it. Also, he seems to hide his real identity, but his servant constantly mentions having recognised him as wearing the famous Byzantine purple that only emperors would wear.

Seen through other people's eyes, Ioannis Anghelos is quite a scandalous presence: he is a dangerous spy, a possible traitor, a seducer even seen among nuns, a madman who would die for his strange beliefs and who throws away his fabulous possessions. At times, the reader has no clue of what to believe about this character.

To divulge more of the twists and intrigues to follow would be a crime. These are so skillfully created that spoiling them would take away the great thrills.With every page you just hope that there's a way for them to survive, to stop or escape the deadly siege... and there are chances... but their hearts are "not of this world".

The Siege of Constantinople

Inexorable fate, violence, bitter waiting, war frenzy, unavoidable doom - the worst is delivered in honest sentences, in a blood-chilling account of historical deeds. Bit by bit, it is all built up to the final moment, and hope intertwines with the fear of imminent death in a way that feels genuine and not far-fetched.The details of the war strategy can be fascinating even to those who usually skip such parts.

The Confrontation Between Christianity and Islam

Luckily it is not the mockery we have today, especially concerning the terrorism obsession, but the true historical clash, the rallied forces, one wishing to conquer, the other one defending its heritage and spirit. It is a solemn meeting between the two, a clash of cultures and human types, a chance to distinguish between politics and spirituality.

Western vs. Eastern Christianity

A matter often overlooked or misunderstood, this is often the key to understanding this faith. The Eastern faith or Orthodoxy has stayed loyal to its roots, with an original theology instead of one that has gone through many alterations throughout the centuries.

The Double Mission

Ioannis Anghelos/ Johannes Angelos/ Jean Ange has an uncertain affiliation. He was the sultan's man, now loyal to the Byzantium. For a great deal of time it is never clear whether he is honest in his present position or is hiding his true self. Suspicion goes for about half of the novel, until the despair of love and the smell of death make him confess.

The Mystery

As said above, Ioannis Anghelos is a character shrouded in mystery. Oftentimes, himself or others reveal bits about his history, yet the questions still remain.

The Love

Unlike what would be expected, the love story here isn't a pretext or a side story. It is the very spine (and heart) of the novel, yet still it succeeds to be perfectly merged with the dramatic times, with the siege itself. It is merged with death. This is a perfect and frightening marriage of Eros and Thanatos. Furthermore, the love story is where beliefs are shown, where faith is to be seen and tested, and where the characters have the chance to actually prove who they really are on all levels.