Gombojav Mend-Ooyo: Altan Ovoo (Golden Hill)

The latest addition to my website is Gombojav Mend-Ooyo‘s Altan Ovoo (Golden Hill). Mend-Ooyo is best-known in Mongolia as a poet but has also written prose works, including this novel which, unusually has been translated into English (by Simon Wickham-Smith). It is very much a poetical novel and tells of how his father took him to the sacred mountain of Golden Hill, when he was a boy. Golden Hill is important because it is sacred to his people but also it is associated with Genghis Khan (who is revered and not reviled in Mongolia) who may have died near there, after falling off his horse. We also learn of his travels around Mongolia, of his life, of stories of several Mongolian characters and several Mongolian animals and of various Mongolian legends, including their origin legend. It is a joy to read but, sadly, despite being translated into English, very difficult to obtain, as it was self-published in Ulaanbaatar.

Ondjaki: O Assobiador (The Whistler)

The latest addition to my website is Ondjaki‘s O Assobiador (The Whistler). This is written as fable about a young man who has a beautiful whistle, who arrives at a sleepy Angolan town and starts whistling in the church. After some initial misgivings, the whole town, from the padre to the pigeons, is entranced by his whistling. Many of them change their outlook on life, with Ondjaki skilfully using magic and magic realism but also showing highly different effects on the various individuals. From sex to recovering from imminent death, from reconnecting with the sea to simply seeing the world in a different way, the town is changed and all for the better. It is wonderfully written and a joy to read.

Guzel Yakhina: Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha)

The latest addition to my website is Guzel Yakhina‘s Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha). Zuleikha is a Tatar woman, married to an abusive husband, in the late 1920s. Her husband is determined that the Soviets will not have any of his food and he hides. When he is caught and objects, he is shot on the spot. Zuleikha and many other villagers are then sent off to Siberia as former kulaks. The journey is hard, not least because there is a huge backlog of kulaks and other undesirables being sent off to Siberia and they are delayed on their train journey. It is made harder when Zuleikha realises she is pregnant – her husband raped her the night before his death. She has already lost four daughters, all of whom died young, and she is determined to protect her first son. We follow the story of the prisoners, the commandant and, in particular, Zuleikha, from around 1930 to the end of World War II. As the Russian title (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes) tells us, a good part (but certainly not the only part) is about how Zuleikha develops from being a submissive Muslim woman and abused wife to being someone more independent. Yakhina tells an excellent tale of life in a Siberian camp and of a woman who finds herself there.

Ansomwin Ignace Hien: Une flamme dans le noir [A Flame in the Dark]

The latest addition to my website is Ansomwin Ignace Hien‘s Une flamme dans le noir [A Flame in the Dark]. Though Hien is from Burkina Faso, much of the novel is set in Côte d’Ivoire and most of the main characters are Ivoirian, though not all. The novel tells the story of Simon, an Ivorian architect who falls for a young girl in a remote village but cannot marry her as he is about to go to France for five years. He later returns to Côte d’Ivoire and assists the young daughter of a couple to get an education. His assistance, however, consists of raping her and getting her pregnant. He marries her – she is more reluctant than he is – and we follow their messy later life. Both have affairs, both behave badly and most of the main characters end up dead or thoroughly miserable. It is a grim tale, warning against marital infidelity, unprotected sex and checking out that your partner has no hidden secrets that will come back to hurt you.

Alfredo Pareja Díez Canseco: Las tres ratas [The Three Rats]

The latest addition to my website is Alfredo Pareja Díez Canseco‘s Las tres ratas [The Three Rats]. Alfredo Pareja Díez Canseco was an Ecuadorian realist writer as well as a politician, none of whose work has been translated into English. This novel tells the story of three unmarried adult sisters, whose parents have died, leaving them to manage the farm, on their own. They fail due to a combination of bad luck and inexperience and leave the farm to go and live with their aunt in Guayaquil. They are not particularly welcomed and their inexperience with life and men leads to further disasters. Pareja Díez Canseco shows in this novel the plight of women, particularly women on their own, in Ecuador of the time (first half of the last century).

Turkish literature Part 2

I have now read twenty Turkish novels in a row, by twenty different authors. Given that I read relatively few beforehand, it has been a most interesting experience. While obviously I liked some more than others, I cannot say that any of them were a real disappointment. If there is a common theme, it is clearly politics. Turkey has had political upheavals now for many, many years – certainly during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – and this is reflected in these books. Many of the novels deal directly with political issues, others indirectly. Quite a number of the writers have been in conflict with the government. Ahmet Altan is currently serving a life sentence and others, such as , Oya Baydar, Aslı Erdoğan, Nâzım Hikmet, Orhan Kemal and Yaşar Kemal have spent time in prison for political reasons, while others have had conflicts with the authorities.

The political issues do not just concern Turks vs Turks. The Armenians only really figure in Elif Shafak‘s Baba ve Piç (The Bastard of Istanbul), though they are mentioned in passing in Nâzım Hikmet‘s Yaşamak Güzel Şey Be Kardeşim (Life’s Good, Brother). As Shafak points out in her novel, the issue is barely known or discussed in Turkey. Indeed, it is a crime to say there was an Armenian genocide.

The other major ethnic minority in Turkey are the Kurds and they get mentioned in several books, but particularly in Oya Baydar‘s Kayıp Söz (The Lost Word), where the Kurdish issue is a key part of the novel. Many Turks, including writers, have been in trouble for supporting the Kurds.

Another key feature of the Turkish novel is story-telling. Of course, story telling is a key feature of novels worldwide but Turkish writers like peppering their novels with short, often fantastical stories. We see this in novels such as Burhan Somnez‘s Kayıp Söz (Sins and Innocents), Güneli Gün‘s On the Road to Baghdad, İhsan Oktay Anar‘s Puslu Kıtalar Atlası [The Atlas of Misty Continents], Oğuz Atay‘s Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected) and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar‘s Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü (The Time Regulation Institute) but a little bit in others as well.

While Turkish novels do have themes found in novels world-wide – love and romance, love and romance gone wrong, war and its consequences, Bildungsroman, the picaresque journey, clashes with authority, parent-children relationships – there is no question that they are blighted by their history and, indeed, current events and those themes remain key.

As regards location, two were specifically set abroad – Brazil (Aslı Erdoğan‘s Kırmızı Pelerinli Kent (The City in Crimson Cloak)) and the UK (Burhan Somnez‘s Kayıp Söz (Sins and Innocents)). The others, while they may have had a few scenes abroad, were scattered around the country. Not surprisingly, quite a few were set in Istanbul and some of them showed the changing nature of Istanbul, its growth and development, some good though all too often bad. Many were set in rural Turkey and life there seems unremittingly grim.

Sadly, only five of the twenty were women. I suspect, as happens with other nationalities, that fewer women are translated and probably fewer published.

I enjoyed all of the books, though some more than others. The two outstanding ones in my view were Oğuz Atay‘s Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected) and Oya Baydar‘s Kayıp Söz (The Lost Word). The former has been called the Turkish Ulysses, which it is only because it is the key Turkish modernist novel as Ulysses is the key Irish modernist novel and also because the city plays a role in the book, but not nearly as much as Dublin plays a role in Ulysses.

The Baydar is a superb novel on the Kurds, parent-children relationships, marital relationships, the use and abuse of power, and responsibility and commitment.

As always in my reading marathons, the question was not just what to include but what to leave out. I note that I have quite a few Turkish novels still to read, some by the authors recently read and others by authors yet to discover. I would hope that we will see more Turkish writers in translation.

Burhan Sönmez: Masumlar (Sins & Innocents)

The latest addition to my website is Burhan Sönmez‘s Masumlar (Sins & Innocents. Burhan Sönmez was attacked by the police in Turkey and came to England, specifically Cambridge, both to recuperate and escape. Brani Tawo, the narrator of this book, is based on him. The story is divided into alternating parts. The first involves Brani’s time in Cambridge. While there he meets a fellow exile, Feruzeh, who left Iran with her mother when she was seven and has not been back. She is doing a Ph. D. The two soon become friends and more. At the same time we are following the story of Brani’s family and village back in Turkey, as partially seen through the eyes of a travelling photographer, Tatar. The stories are all grim but eventually link up with Brani and the photo he has of his uncle Hatip and Tatar, which starts off his story in Cambridge. It works well, as Sönmez is a fine story teller for both the Cambridge and Turkey part of the novel and deals with issues such as exile and how to fit in to a foreign country on the one hand and the grimness of life in Turkey, with feuds, bandits, war and its consequences, and the harshness of life in rural Turkey on the other.

Nâzım Hikmet: Yaşamak Güzel Şey Be Kardeşim (Life’s Good, Brother)

The latest addition to my website is Nâzım Hikmet‘s Yaşamak Güzel Şey Be Kardeşim (Life’s Good, Brother). Nâzım Hikmet is perhaps Turkey’s best-known poet but he was also a communist. This book is a fictionalised autobiography of his life and is generally agreed to be his best prose work. It was written while he was very ill and he died well before it was published. Indeed, it was first published in Russian translation and then in French translation. It is primarily set in Izmir in 1925, when he was in hiding from the police, trying to publish an underground newspaper, and was bitten by a dog and was worried he might have rabies. However, we also follow his time in Moscow, where he was more interested in Anushka than in politics, the period soon after World War I, when the occupying Allied powers were the enemy and, in particular, his time in prison later, where he was tortured and given a fake execution. Hikmet jumps around in time and place, and from first to third person but writes so well that that is barely a distraction.

Hasan Ali Toptaş: Gölgesizler (Shadowless)

The latest addition to my website is Hasan Ali ToptaşGölgesizler (Shadowless). This is a decidedly strange novel, set partially in a barber’s shop in an unnamed city and partially in a remote village, far away from the city, which also has a a bfrber’s shop. People have the habit of leaving the city barber shop, all under the watchful but somewhat perturbed eyes of the novelist, and suddenly turning up in the village, without explanation and, to a certain degree, vice versa. People also simply disappear from the village and turn up, often a long time later, without explanation for their absence or return. Not only can no-one explain what is happening, no-one tries to. Are some the the fantastical characters responsible or is it the remote state or is it simply because the world is irrational and incomprehensible and things happen that we do not and cannot understand? Toptaş gives us no clues as to the whys and wherefores. It just is.