Friday, September 19, 2008

Waltari’s Dark Angel

Mika Waltari, one of Finland’s most widely known and translated writers, was born a hundred years ago today. He became best known for his historical novels, but he was a prolific and adaptable writer, turning his pen to many different forms. He is not, however, known as a diarist. Nevertheless, it seems that he did once keep a travel diary, and that it provides an interesting insight into how he did research for his historical fiction. Of particular interest is the way he tracked down the 15th century diary of Nicolo Barbaro, which tells of the fall of Constantinople, and how he then used it as a source for one of his best known novels, The Dark Angel, written in diary form.

Waltari was born on 19 September 1908 into a religious family, but lost his father at the age of 5. He studied philosophy and literature at university, and became a prominent figure in the Finnish literary movement known as Tulenkantajat (the Flame-bearers), which sought to open up Finnish literature to the rest of Europe. His first novel, Suuri Illusioni (Grand Illusion), published in 1928, depicted, according to WSOY (Finland’s leading publisher), the lost generation following the first world war - ‘à la Fitzgerald’. It proved an early success.

Both Wikipedia and Books from Finland provide biographical summaries. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Waltari worked hectically as a journalist and reviewer, and travelled widely in Europe. He also continued writing books, in many different genres, poetry, horror, crime and even scripting popular cartoons, and authoring a guidebook for aspiring writers. During the war years, he wrote propaganda for the government, and soon after published his first historical novel, The Egyptian, which became an international bestseller. He wrote seven more historical novels, placed in different ancient cultures, among which The Dark Angel, set during the fall of Constantinople in 1453, is considered one of his best.

By happy coincidental chance (for this blog), Waltari - not a diary-keeper by habit - did once keep a diary, a travel diary, published in 1948, when he was researching The Dark Angel. The Finnish author Panu Rajala, who is currently working on a biography of Waltari, says this travel diary is the ‘best introduction to Waltari’s working methods’ - something the National Library of Finland asked him to write about for their 2008 bulletin.

The last two paragraphs are worth reproducing verbatim for Rajala, in using the author’s own diary, explains how the famous diary written by Niccolo Barbaro inspires Waltari to use the diary form for his next novel.

‘On this trip to Venice or the next, Waltari ascends the steps to the National Library of St. Mark along the Piazzetta opposite the old Doge’s Palace. He has read a printed version of the diary written by Niccolo Barbaro, a participant in the battle, describing the Siege of Constantinople, but now he wants to see the original manuscript in its original decorative leather binding. He reads the 67-page diary, hand-written in the calligraphic script of its time, in which a young Venetian patriot describes the tragic phases of the siege. An unknown commentator’s marginal annotations in red ink provide Waltari with his most cogent insights. This is just what Waltari has maintained - of greater importance to the author are often the footnotes and minor details, not always the broad strokes. When Niccolo Barbaro accuses the Genovians of embezzlement, written on the page is ‘Angelo Zacaria, Greek embezzler for the Turks’.

Johannes Angelos is born and begins to grow as the novel’s main character. Simultaneously the form of the future novel - a diary - is found. Waltari is already in a rush to his destination, Istanbul.’

There is not much biographical information about Barbaro himself on the internet, but The Diary Junction gives a little, and also provides links to online texts of his diary. A near full version can be found here.

At the end of his description of the last day of the siege, Barbaro writes: ‘The fighting lasted from dawn until noon, and while the massacre went on in the city, everyone was killed; but after that time they were all taken prisoner. Our Bailo, Jeruolemo Minoto, had his head cut off by order of the Sultan; and this was the end of the capture of Constantinople, which took place in the year one thousand four hundred and fifty-three, on the twenty-ninth of May, which was a Tuesday.’

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