Shusha Guppy interviewed Lesley Blanch at her home in Garavan, before and after a delicious home-cooked lunch consumed in the shade of a fig tree in the garden. September 1988.
Shusha Guppy : It took some six years to write your next book, which you told me you consider your best: The Sabres of Paradise, the story of the Imam Shamyl. Your husband Romain Gary admired it greatly, and called it a masterpiece, didn’t he?
Lesley Blanch : Yes. Praise from him was praise indeed!
SG : It has a very rich texture and is beautifully written, and it was a great success everywhere – France, Germany, Russia . . .
LB : And I have just heard that a Daghestani man, an officer in the Soviet Army, has translated it into Daghestani language, which is interesting. Well, there had been nothing else on this splendid subject, except in Russia. I wrote it in Los Angeles in the late fifties. My husband was then the French Consul General there. I used to get up at three or four in the morning and write, and my research often took me away, sometimes to Turkey and the Caucasus. But when I finished it there seemed to be something missing, a gap, and I decided I must go back to Istanbul, where Shamyl had lived briefly in exile after his defeat. My husband thought I was mad, and discouraged me. We always had to give a huge party on July 14th for the French citizens of Los Angeles – there were about eleven thousand of them there. Hundreds used to come to this annual affair. It kept me busy twenty-four hours, but I left the next day. I had a feeling that I had to go and find Shamyl’s family.
I arrived in Paris and went straight to the Turkish Embassy, but they could tell me nothing. I came down to our house in the Midi, but there was no boat leaving, and the Orient Express was not running, while the planes were all full. Eventually a seat was found for me on a plane leaving from Rome the next day. I stood up all night in a crowded train laden with suitcases, cardboard boxes, nuns and sailors, in suffocating heat. From Rome, where I only just caught the plane, I reached Istanbul. I went to the old Park Hotel: “Oh Madame Gary, why didn’t you let us know you coming? We have no room!” But they knew me well, and turned someone out to give me a bed. I threw myself down, exhausted, but could not rest. I had to go to Besiktas, along the Bosporus (where Shamyl had once lived).
The area was different then – old dilapidated houses and beggars, a most desolate place. Today it has been tidied up and rebuilt. I asked the beggars, Shamyl? Shamyl Imam? One of them finally pointed to a dead-end alley. I went down it and found a broken-down door and pushed it open. A woman looking very Caucasian with slanted eyes and dark hair came out, tight-lipped. She spoke French and I asked her if it was possible that Shamyl had ever lived there? She gave me a look like a steel dagger and said: “Why do you want to know?” I said I was writing a book about him. She looked me up and down and said: “He died in Mecca.” “I know,” I said. Then she said something which I contradicted, and she responded by saying: “I see you know your subject, you can come in.”
She was Shamyl’s great-granddaughter, and she was leaving that very night for Jakarta where her husband was the Egyptian Ambassador. She had only come over for her sister’s burial. So you see, another couple of hours and I would have missed her! Hence my premonition that I had to leave immediately after that exhausting party in Los Angeles. She said: “I’ll stay,” and did. We became great friends. She gave me all sorts of papers and letters and unknown material. I became a friend of the whole family. My husband had been so discouraging about ever finding any more material that I couldn’t resist sending a telegram: “Floating on the Bosporus with Shamyl’s great-great-grandson.” Apparently he showed it to his secretary: “Ma femme! Quel numéro, ma femme!”
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