Narrative cosmonauts

Have you come across Siri the Viking girl yet? If you have, you can now look forward to a fourth book and her return to Constantinople. If you haven’t yet made her acquaintance, you have something to look forward to! Siri is a feisty Pippi Longstocking kind of girl, presented in words and images that are reminiscent of Asterix – as clever as entertaining.

The next Siri book will appear by the end of April and is titled Calamity in Constantinople (Kalabalik i Konstantinopel). I recently met with her creators Patric Nyström and Per Demervall in Istanbul, where the Turkish translation was launched in early November, and took the opportunity to ask some questions about characterization and world-making.

Ingela: Many things have happened since 2016, when I chanced upon Siri in Dagens ETC, bought the first book and contacted you for an interview. Is it possible to describe briefly what the journey has been like for you and Siri since then?

Patric & Per: It’s actually been staggering, but also slow, partly because of the deplorable Covid pandemic. But we’ve been pegging away with several books so now if feels as if more and more people know about Siri.
Then we have to say that Siri and the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul really have found each other in a fantastic way – and of course also the people behind Siri and the institute.

Ingela: Speaking of which: the translation of the first two books into Turkish, as well as Siri’s participation in the digital exhibition “Nordic Tales, Byzantine Paths”, feels rather unexpected and exciting. What was it like to take Siri into a Turkish language environment?

Patric & Per: We felt confident all along that the interplay between word and image would work also in another language. Our hope is that the Turkish children will learn not only a part of their history, but also develop their own reading habits and language through the books and the exhibition.

Ingela: Siri started out by travelling to Miklagård/Constantinople in the first book. She has since then been visited by her friend Zack in the North (second book) and travelled to France to see Paris (third book), but I understand that she is now going to return to Constantinople. Why? And can you reveal anything about what will happen to her this time?

Patric: I felt it was time for Zack to visit his home in Constantinople again. I wanted to show his parents and the cityscape in more detail this time.
I have based Zack’s dad on Michael III, the youngest son of Emperor Theophilos. I made Eudokia Ingerina, Michael’s mistress, into Zack’s mom.
I thought this would give an obscure enough background to our little hero. I also invented a new villain, which was a bit scary when you’re used to Ivar and Grym.
This book is the most difficult I have written so far, since I had so many ideas and threads. But now I hope that they have all resulted in an entertaining story about a ring that brings luck to the emperor and the people and how it gets stolen by our new villain.

Ingela: You have actually created an entire world together in words and images – a historical world, but at the same time a world of its own and an imaginary version of what you have seen and read. Perhaps it’s a silly question, but how does this co-creative process come about?

Patric: It really is joint work. I write my manuscript based on what I have read during my research for a new book. In the manuscript I describe environments, monuments and buildings to Per, but also the characters that the children encounter. I try to incorporate historical events in order to infuse some more life into my stories. For example, the monk Ansgar lost almost 40 books to pirates on his first trip to Birka and I associated this with an idea I had about the Viking myth of the source of wisdom: that it could contain books. These thoughts eventually led to Mimir’s Well, the second book about Siri and Zack.

Per: Wow! That’s a question that demands a long digression! 🙂 But I will try to offer a short version.

When Patric has written his first draft, we go through it first individually and then together. At this point we’re brainstorming ideas and come up with all sorts of follies. When that’s done, Patric writes up the manuscript, which I then take and break it down into sketches of comic pages. We try to work in parallel as much as possible. I look up the environments and buildings which are to be recreated, the uniforms of guards and soldiers and so on.

When it comes to characters, it’s important to ‘build’ the persons based on their characteristics. In the forthcoming book, there is a sleazy advisor who has an assistant by his side. They have to be in sync, so there’s quite a bit of sketch work before I can feel that they are right. Of course, Patric also needs to feel that they are right for his manuscript. When it comes to buildings there is much material to draw on. I try to make my own reconstructions based on that material, so that the series has its own profile. But the most important is that image and text unite beautifully, which we think they do.

Ingela: Finally, there are rumours about a film adaptation – can you say anything about that? Is Siri going to Hollywood?

Per: That’s correct, there’s a great interest. We have a big film producer, a director and an animation company ready to take on Siri. But to launch Siri as an animated film is a long process. We have begun that journey and hope we will make it all the way.

As we are wrapping up, I come to think of one more question that I need to ask – something I’ve been wondering about when reading, but feel a little embarrassed to ask.

Ingela: I just realized I have one last question, if you have time. It’s not meant to be a snobbish academic question, I’m seriously curious: which language do you think that Siri speaks with Zack and other people she meets on her travels? Or is there a language in her world that goes beyond our ideas of languages bound to specific places?

 

Per: Ha-ha. That one is for Patric.

Patric: Thanks for the question 🙂 Of course, the complicated answer is that Siri and Zack speak Old Norse, because Zack grew up surrounded by his dad’s Varangian guards. When they’re in Paris they get around with Old Norse too. When it comes to Greek in Constantinople, I guess Zack interprets for Siri, but that would be very tedious to include in the books!
It is, in fact, likely that in the wonderful world of comics everyone speaks the same language, maybe thanks to the fact that they all have a Babel Fish behind their ears.*

This answer is indeed symptomatic of Siri and her creators: a combination of learning and pop culture, serious craft and a great sense of humour. Obviously, in the wonderful world of not only comics and fantasy, but also medieval storytelling, language is rarely an issue – characters and plots transgress such boundaries and that’s how storyworlds travel, effortlessly, through time and space.

Ingela Nilsson

* For those of you who are not familiar with the Babel Fish, check out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – according to Patric “the best novel ever”.

Before approaching Byzantine literature in translation, we need to face the question of what Byzantine literature is in the first place. How do we deal with a modern term in the Byzantine context? Stratis Papaioannou discusses what we mean by “Byzantine” and by “literature”, while presenting the new Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Literature in the Byzantium & Friends Podcast

How much Byzantium can fit onto a planet in an outer space, in a distant future? How do we build future storyworlds out of past civilizations? How would you like your entire cultural memory wrapped and handed down? Can meeting a linguistic alien make us ponder on the foundations of our own culture? Are we translatable? And what draws us so much to Empires we strongly dislike?

Listen to Arkady Martine (aka AnnaLinden Weller), the author of the Hugo Award winning space opera A Memory Called Empire, in conversation with Ingela Nilsson, for the occasion of the exhibition “What Byzantinism Is This in Istanbul!” Byzantium in Popular Culture at the Pera Museum in Istanbul.

We present Uffe Holmsgaard Eriksen, one of the Narrative Cosmonauts from our Storytelling & Narratology team. His research focuses on hymnography and narratology. He is also very fond of music from the Eastern Mediterranean and an amateur performer of different kinds of traditional music. In October 2021 he visited the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul to conduct research.

At Galata there is a drizzle, at Tatavla heavy rain”
One day in the Fall of 2021, there was indeed a drizzle at Galata. The opening lines of one of the most well-known Greek songs about the City quoted above came to my mind. I did not go to Tatavla (modern day Kurtuluş), but the clouds loomed over the entire horizon in pale grey, so there was probably heavy rain at Tatavla.
Songs about cities are numerus: from Sinatra’s anthem “New York, New York”, Robert Johnson’s blues classic “Sweet Home Chicago”, Rufus Wainwright’s slightly satirical “Hometown Waltz” about Montreal, to the beloved jazz standard “April in Paris”.
Paintings, books and movies can represent the city in detail. Songs, at least in the modern era, are often less verbose. In the early recording industry in the 1910-1920’s songs were restricted by the technology, which only allowed for a length of about 3 minutes. This format has ever since dictated that a songwriter needs to be concise in order to get the message through. The media is the message.

Galata Drizzle
The rain reflects the Galata Tower (Image UHE)

The Greek song mentioned above is “Eche gia, panta gia” or “Eche gia, Panagia” as it is also known. Set to a well-known and catchy tune from Asia Minor, the lyrics tell the story of a person getting drunk in the City, without mentioning it by name. Throughout the song the Greek neighborhoods in the City are enumerated. Besides Galata and Tatavla, we hear about Pera (modern day Beyoğlu), Genti-Koule (Yedikule), Tharapia (Tarabya) and Nichori (Yeniköy).

I have not been able to track its exact origins, but the first recordings of the song are from the early recording industry in the 1920’s. It was another version, however, that made the song rise to its present fame 50 years later. This version, originally recorded by the folklorist and singer Domna Samiou, in 1973, is the best know version, mentioning the areas of the City, here in a recent recording by the Istanbul-based ensemble, Café Aman Istanbul:

A peculiar issue revolves around the refrain. When Samiou recorded it in
1973, the refrain was “Eche gia, Panagia” (Farewell, Holy Mother”), but
she was later informed that it was actually “Eche gia, panta gia”
(“Farewell, always fare well”). It is claimed by many singers today, that
the latter version of the refrain is the correct one. But the earliest
recordings of the song from the 1920’s reveal a different story.
Although the lyrics are entirely different, the refrain says “Panagia”,
not “panta gia”. Whatever the original refrain might be, the refrain
with “Panagia” actually reflects and continues to echo an ancient
relationship between the City and its protector and defender, the Mother
of God, Virgin Mary.

One of the earliest songs that was crucial in voicing this relationship is the Akathist hymn. It is a hymn of praise that celebrates Virgin Mary. It was probably composed in the 5th century, but an extra stanza was added in the 7th century which established a close relationship between the song and the city.

In 626, Constantinople was finally free from assailants (at least for a while). The Avars, the Slavs, and the Persians had tried to conquer the city, but with the help of the Mother of God, the citizens and the emperor Heraklios were finally freed. To celebrate this victory and give thanks to the Virgin, the city’s patriarch Sergios added the extra stanza which goes:

 

“To you, Mother of God, Protector and Leader in battle,
I, your City, delivered from terror,
dedicate songs of victory and thanksgiving!”

In these verses the city itself sings to Virgin Mary and by singing confirms the unique relationship between the two. Later, the word “city” was replaced with “people”, probably because the hymn became very popular in the liturgy in and around the Byzantine Empire. The specific historical and local connection had to be loosened so that other faithful could chant the hymn around the world.

However, the Mother of God could not protect the City forever against the Ottoman Turks who conquered the capital of the Byzantine empire in the end of May 1453. One year later, the Flemish composer, Guillaume Dufay, wrote a motet in which a mother – symbolizing both Virgin Mary and the Great Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) – sings with tears to God the Father about the fall of the City and the Church. This is reflected in the title of the piece “Lament of the Holy Mother Church of Constantinople” (in latin Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae).

 

The events are not mentioned directly, but are alluded to through a paraphrase and expansion of the biblical Book of Lamentations 1.2 which bewails the fall of Jerusalem. The motet was probably written to be performed at a banquet in Lille in France, where Western noble men were eager to initiate a crusade to deliver the City from the Turks. Through the mediation of the Mother of God singing in her own voice to God, the City should once more be freed and protected. It obviously had a different outcome than intended.  

Other songs were later written about the City, now firmly established as the Ottoman capital. These songs reflect the air of the Sultan’s Palace – and his harem. The Greek-Turkish song “O kaixis” (“The Boatman”, in Turkish “Gel, gel, kayıkçı”) was probably written in the 19th century. In the song, a man standing on the shore of the Golden Horn calls for a boatman to pick him up and sail him to the Sultan’s palace. He wants to free a beautiful lady, who is trapped in the Sultan’s harem.

The song mixes Greek and Turkish words and thus reflects the language of the Greeks living in the Ottoman city, called Istanbul by the Turks. Perhaps the beautiful lady could be interpreted as the Mother of God, but this theory would need some explaining of how she ended up in the harem in the first place.

Farther away from the capital, in the Balkans, another song brings tidings from the City, called Stambol in Slavic. This song is written from a Muslim perspective and is a well-known sevdalinka, the music style that is sometimes called the “Bosnian Blues”. In the song, “U Stambolu na Bosforu” (“In Istanbul upon Bosphorus”), we hear about a pasha who is sick and about to die. He promises his faithful servants that they are to receive six wives each from the harem, then he sheds a tear and dies. When his wife hears about his death, she also sheds a tear and dies.

In “U Stambolu na Bosforu”, which was made famous by the sevdah singer Himzo Polovina, the prayer call of the muezzin is recited, or rather just “Allah illallah”. This prayer call was and still is an audible reality in Bosnia as well as in the City. But like “O kaixis” and “Eche gia, Panta gia”, the song invokes a certain image of the City, which was already a distant past by the early recordings of the songs.

This brings me to the Retracing Connections research programme. Songs are, as noted above, often much shorter than literary poems, novels and movies, and do not allow for the same detail as such media or paintings do. In all the songs, the City is mentioned directly or indirectly, but not described in any detail. Rather, we hear what is going on in the City at a certain, but not clearly defined period in time, at very general geographic locations (Galata, at the harem, in the [mind of] Hagia Sophia).

In other words, listeners are invited to imagine the world in which these sung stories take place. The songs invoke storyworlds that draw on the listeners creative imagination. I am quite sure that the way I imagine Sergios’ praise of the Mother of God in 626 or the lamenting church in 1454 has very little to do with historical realities.

I am also quite certain that I have a slight orientalist reading of the songs “O kaixis” and “U Stambolu na Bosforu”, when I imagine the pasha or women in the harem. My knowledge about the harem at the Sultan’s palace is very limited and the image that pops up draws on a visit to the Topkapı palace some years ago as well as some brothel-like scenes from old movies.

 

I am convinced that most listeners function in the same way. In their minds, the songs do not prompt a historically informed image of the City, but rather an imagined Constantinople/Istanbul, a semi-fictional storyworld that blends all kinds of images, stories and impressions available to each listener. One can even sing the songs without knowing much about the history or geographical locations.

This was the case for a friend of mine, who is a Greek singer living in Denmark. She had sung “Eche gia, panta gia” a thousand times at tavernas and parties in Greece. When I told her that I was staying almost literally between Pera and Galata, she was surprised that Galata was a part of the City. She had never thought about the exact locations of the areas mentioned in the song. For her, the City in the song was almost completely an imagined city.

Indeed, we find an imagined Istanbul in the somewhat cheesy songs C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E by Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra from 1928 and the more famous “Istanbul (not Constantinople)” sung by the Four Lads in 1953, marking the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople. These songs do not in any way reveal an intimate relationship with the City, but merely use the name to write a witty song.

However, the last song on my list, which is in no way exhaustive, might reflect an almost private relationship. The short-lived British pop group The Flyers – which was more or less based in Denmark – made a small hit with the song “Don’t be a fool in Istanbul”. The song is 80’s/90’s disco pop with some exotic elements like a synthesized “kanun” (a kind of zither) and a Turkish clarinet.

The singer begins the song by stating: “I can tell you a story, and I swear every word is true!” He then reveals that he met a “dark-veiled lady” who “through her mask was beautiful” but wanted him to be sure “not to break the rules”. As in every good tragic story, the singer of course breaks the rules and ends up in jail. Whether or not it is really true, as the singer claims, is not interesting. The interesting question is: why Istanbul?

An answer may be that “Istanbul” rhymes (almost…) perfectly with “don’t be a fool” which is the refrain of the song. Again, the lyrics do not give us any information or detail about the City, it rather invites the listener to imagine a city where dating rules are strict because the women are religious – did anyone say orientalist exoticism?

 

Galata
Despite the rain, many people visit the Galata Tower, while a shopkeeper sweeps away the showers. (Image UHE)

All these songs come to my mind that day, when there indeed is a drizzle at Galata. My imagined Constantinople/Istanbul merges with the real world Istanbul. I look at different places and spaces and try to reimagine where the stories told in the songs took place. The City is a symbol that embodies a whole civilization, ideologies, religions and empires.

The songs project storyworlds in which the City is an important setting full of emotions connected with for instance Hagia Sophia or the Harem. In some songs, the City even becomes one of the main protagonists: in the Akathist hymn, the City is victorious as in Epic, whereas the City and its Church of Holy Wisdom are tragic characters in Dufay’s lamentation.

In all the songs to the City, the lack of detail and description makes it possible for the listener to imagine the City in many ways, as a world, a storyworld, to inhabit for a short while when the song catches the attention of the ear, especially when not being present in the City. As the lyrics of Eche gia, Panta gia came to my mind, I initially wanted to follow the protagonist in the song, who wants to get drunk at Pera. However, I decided to adhere to the warning from the Flyers not to be a fool in Istanbul, so that I avoided ending up as a tragic character in my own storyworld.

Sources: 

  • Beep!: Farewell, Virgin Mary (merphant.blogspot.com)
  •  Έχε γειά Παναγιά | Δεν χρειάζεται να είσαι ΔΕΞΙΟΣ για να είσαι ΠΑΤΡΙΩΤΗΣ ούτε ΑΡΙΣΤΕΡΟΣ για να είσαι ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤΗΣ (ttsiotikas.blogspot.com)
  • Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae - Wikipedia

Thanks to: Damir Imamović, Haris Theodorelis-Rigas, Alexandros Charkiolakis, Thomas Arentzen, Therese Helga Emborg, and Fedja Wierød Borčak.

Discover the countless worlds and faces of Michael Psellos, the intellectual whose words and stories marked our image of the eleventh century more than any others. Stratis Papioannou presents the Greek edition of his book ΜΙΧΑΗΛ ΨΕΛΛΟΣ: Η ρητορική και ο λογοτέχνης στο Βυζάντιο, in the LiFO ΒΙΒΛΙΑ ΚΑΙ ΣΥΓΓΡΑΦΕΙΣ Podcast.