What do a propeller and an anchor of a ship of the German fleet of the I World War, the Kaiserliche Marine, the Imperial Navy, on display in front of the Naval Museum in Istanbul? They are the remains of a memorable warship and testimonies of one of the great war adventures of all time in the sea. They belonged to the SMS battle cruiser (Seiner Majestät Schiff, ship of His Majesty) Goeben, that led its enemies, the Allies, in the Mediterranean during the Great War. During most of the fight the ship fought from Turkish port and under the name and flag of this country. The man who a little beyond the propeller and the anchor is layered with a saltcellar in a naval gun outside the museum that seems to point directly towards passers-by is the writer Ildefonso Arenas (Madrid, 1947), author of novels such as Álava in Waterloo -A great rewrite of the battle- or Third Knight's Cross -About a Spanish aviator who fought with the German pilots of the Luftwaffe-, and that in the last one published, The ship of the devil (Edhasa), reflotates Goeben and its fascinating history, closely related to Istanbul. The title of the book, so novelistic, comes from the British press of the time, which baptized the German cruiser (Churchill said that the Goben He sailed to the Dardanelles "carrying with him for the peoples of the East more misery, death and ruin than had ever been carried by a ship.") The Germans themselves picked up the nickname with pride: "Das Teuffelschiff."
The Arenas novel, an amazing tour de force like the previous ones it shows as a backdrop a very complete and documented panorama of the alliance between Turkey and Germany during the First World War, the war activity in the Eastern Mediterranean -including the Gallipoli campaign- and even the ill fate of the Kaiserliche Marine (We will witness the honorable self-sinking fleet in Scapa Flow in 1919), has four major players: the German warship, the Turkish city and the young invented couple that make up an officer of the Kaiser navy, Rolf Wichelhausen, and his Catalan girlfriend The latter, Queralt Mir, daughter of a Barcelona notary and sister-in-law of the Spanish naval attaché in Istanbul, developed, courageous, polyglot and of a surprisingly uninhibited sexuality for the time (and really for any time), is a real find that, capable of perform espionage tasks, walk around the Grand Bazaar with a Luger P08 in the refajo, stock up on panellets to the Goeben and to cook paellas next to the Golden Horn, until sometimes the function is eaten to the powerful imperial cruiser.
Arenas has quoted in Istanbul to talk about his novel and relive the historical period in which it takes place (from 1912 to 1920), touring some of its stages. In the naval museum, a modern center near the palace of Dolmabahçe (where Atatürk died) that is mirrored in the neighboring Bosphorus, no less, can be seen, in a collection that includes the famous golden caiques of the Turkish sultans, various objects related to the Groser Kreuzer Goeben. The most exciting is its imperial combat flag (Reichkriegsflagge), with the eagle and the cross, which flew in the clashes that held the battle cruiser with the British fleet, but Arenas also points out paintings and models of the ship. When one thinks of the German fleet of World War I, it does so mainly in the adventurous corsairs Emden, Wolf or the sailboat Seeadler, besides the submarines, of course, like the U-9 of Weddigen. But the feat of Goeben, who also fought the Russian Navy in the Black Sea and bombed Sevastopol, did not go behind.
"I've always been fascinated by that story, since I discovered it in 1962, when I read Battle cruises of Manuel Ramírez Gabarrús (Editorial Naval) ", says Arenas while trying on a Turkish diving cap in the museum shop (we will buy two). "What impressed me the most and what I remember in the first part of my novel was the way that boat and its companion, the light cruiser Breslau, They gave the British fleet, the best in the world, a slip in August 1914, and managed to reach the port of Istanbul. " The novelist, to whom we must recognize the merit of putting the Goeben on the altar of literary warships, the lota on which the HMS sail Ulysses, the Caine, the Compass Rose or the Surprise, narrates in a masterful way, to the Patrick O'Brian, to understand us, that episode. It seems that you were on board, both on the bridge and in the engine room and in the cannons ("Feuer frei!", Open fire!), Watching live the brilliant maneuvers and feints of Admiral Wilhelm Souchon to escape the pack of enemy iron while the rival boats deceived and defeated transmit desperately the signal "GOBLO-GOBLO" (Goeben Breslau out), indicating that both ships have sailed and are loose on the waves in which Britania had to send. An unusual witness of the passage of Goeben and of his exchange of gunfire with the British, by the way, was Barbara Tuchman, at that time a six-year-old girl, aboard an Italian passenger steamer that covered the Venice-Istanbul route. The historian then told the episode in her famous The August guns.
The Goeben and the Breslau, that they had spent a year walking the German flag across the Mediterranean, marking the imperial package, so to speak (Arenas describes a visit by Alfonso XIII to the battle cruiser in the port of Barcelona, in a hurry to go and see, and something more, to Raquel Meller), debuted in World War I by cannoning boldly on August 4 French ports in North Africa. They humiliated the battlecruisers and to all the proud British fleet and, upon their arrival in Istanbul, after letting the pro-German Turks enter the very guarded Dardanelles, they contributed to Turkey sided with the central powers in the war that started. "The British Government and especially Churchill, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty, had made the Turks terribly angry by keeping two warships, two dreadnoughts, that they were building them in English shipyards and that they were already paid, a big gaffe by Churchill, "Arenas explains in another scenario of his novel, the old hotel Pera Palace, where the first passengers of the Orient Express arrived and turned into a barracks German general during the war. In their sumptuous living room they are not here today, as they used to and appears in The ship of the devil, General Von Sanders, Souchon, Von Mücke (the first officer of the Emden) or the Kapitänleutnant Konrad Gansser, submarine U-33, explaining his adventures; but having dinner with Arenas and enjoying his conversation, which is a kermesse of erudition like his novel, one does not miss them and even less when, after talking about the Gneisenau, We attacked the dessert with the cry of "Vollle Fahrt voraus! ("A full machine!").
"To compensate for the loss of the two ships that the British remained and especially to drag the Turks to their side, the Germans offered them the Goeben and the Breslau", Continues Arenas. Rebated as Yavuz Sultán Selim -Sultán Selim the Implacable- and Midilli respectively, and with flag of the half moon, the ships entered nominally to comprise of the Navy of the Turkish empire, although the crew continued being the same, German; that if the officers to give atmosphere changed the cap for the fez. In his new condition, with the Yavuz as the flagship of the Turkish fleet, the two ships carried out numerous missions and remained a thorn in the eastern side of the Allies.
After the war, says Arenas, the Turks retained the Goeben / Yavuz, and in 1938 he ceremoniously brought the remains of Atatürk to his burial in Izmit. In 1946, the ship had the privilege of exchanging cannon shots (courtesy) with the battleship USS Missouri, on a diplomatic visit to Istanbul. It was not discharged until 1950 (it was scrapped in 1973), and it was the last survivor of the German imperial fleet and the boat of its type that was in service the longest.
The writer explains as we risky walk through the slippery alley full of cats from Tomtom Kaptan to the hotel, a former convent of Franciscan nuns and Gardes-Malades in which his main character is installed, that the young German officer is inspired by one Real, although her name was Alfons and not Rolf, just like her. "I met a very similar girl, I also had a Queralt, a long time ago ...". Have you had the feeling that the clever young Catalan woman appropriated the novel? "It has come alive, and has come to amaze myself." Arenas, with his air between Talleyrand and Blücher, is a great specialist in creating unforgettable female characters, as well as in narrating erotic episodes, as serious as it seems.
"I do not like the epic, it's grandiloquent, but that's not at odds with the fact that I'm a fan of the adventure novel"
"Everything I explain is true," he continues, "the historical background, including what Admiral Canaris was in Barcelona, or the Turkish torpedo's action against the Goliath in Canakale ... I find the historical novels that mistreat history atrocory. I try to tell in a pleasant way little-known stories with some invented characters but without separating in the substance of the facts ". The author is so meticulous that when in The ship of the devil the captain of Goeben He asserts that from Pirá to Brindisi (340 miles) it will take 17 hours to twenty knots, you can be sure that it is true.
Arenas narrates his novel from the German side, which is something unusual. "I am interested in the perspective of the one who loses the war and may have won it, and I like the sonority of the German names and positions. Also their culture of order and organization. And I wanted to show the dark side of the British, the arrogance and criminal incompetence of their commanders. World War I is not like II. Here they are not so clear that a side had the moral reason ". Spend a little on tiptoe for the killing of the Armenians. "Mentioned in the novel, the Germans evidently looked the other way."
Despite its broad sights and its great stages, The ship of the devil It is not an epic novel. Arenas makes his characters very close and prints a dose of humor and a lot of irony in the narration. "Aldos Huxley said that humor is a good degreaser in literature. No, I do not like the epic, it's grandiloquent. But that's not at odds with the fact that I'm a fan of the adventure novel, and there are many here. " Interestingly, Arenas is not a reader of Hugo Pratt, despite the fact that The ship of the devil common territories. In the novel there are moments of erotic intensity and other lyrical, in which we can be with the characters on the poop of the Goeben, "with a glass of Taittinger in one hand and a Turkish cigarette in the other, contemplating a city that at sunset was beautiful, allowing itself to be caressed by the breeze of the Bosphorus".
The novelist's favorite ship is not the Goeben, as it would seem to come off that he dedicates a novel of more than half a thousand pages, but an heir of his: the Gneiseanau (1938), described as battleship and as battle cruiser and twin of the Scharnhorst (Two of the star ships of the Kriegsmarine, Hitler's navy, "the overweight dancers" called them by their combination of speed and armor), both with the names of Prussian marshals. Do you really prefer the most famous Bismarck, Tirpitz or Graf Spee, or the corsair Atlantis? "Yes, do you find it strange? It's not bad at all what the Gneisenau! participated in the invasion of Norway - where you can still see a turret of yours installed on land - attacked convoys, sank a good amount of ships, among them, next to the Scharnhorst, the British aircraft carrier HMS Glorious; fought fiercely and lost more than 400 crew members in combat, and there is also that story of his mysterious appearance in March 1941 on the coast of Tenerife, where it is not known what landed ... ".