The latest addition to my website is Nedim Gürsel‘s Boğazkesen, Fatih’in Romanı (The Conqueror). Gürsel is one of the foremost contemporary writers but this is only one of two of his books translated into English. The eponymous conqueror is Sultan Mehmed II who, among many other places, conquered Constantinople. Gürsel tells two stories: the story of Mehmed and his conquest of Constantinople, but also the story of a contemporary Turkish novelist, Fatih Haznedar, who is writing this novel, while staying in a riverside house opposite Mehmed’s fort of Boğazkesen, the Turkish title of this novel. We follow Fatih’s struggle with the novel, culminating in the 1980 coup, while learning about what drove Mehmed to conquer Constantinople, aged only twenty-one. Gürsel tells a first-class tale and this novel should be better known in English.
The latest addition to my website is Ahmet Altan‘s Son Oyun (Endgame). Altan and his brother are both currently serving a lifetime prison sentence because of their alleged involvement in the 2016 coup in Turkey. This novel is about an unnamed novelist who goes to an idyllic seaside resort to write his novel and finds that it is in fact in the middle of a serious gang war. He witnesses two murders and, as we learn right at the beginning of the book, has himself shot someone (though we do not know who or why till the end of the book). In the meantime, dodging the bullets, he manages to have affairs with three women, including the women of the town’s two most powerful and most dangerous men. It is naturally all going to end badly and does.
The latest addition to my website is Güneli Gün‘s On the Road to Baghdad. This is an excellent picaresque novel using magic realism and clearly influenced by the One Thousand and One Nights. Our heroine, Hürü, born in late 15th century Constantinople, is the daughter of a former Karaman prince. When he and his wife set off for Mecca, Hürü is left behind in the care of the local imam. When he tries to seduce her and fails he complains to her parents. Her half brother returns to Constantinople and then takes his half sister to Konya, where he ties her to a tree. The rest of the story involves her adventures both in time and place. She travels back to ninth century Baghdad, travels forward to modern New York, meets Scheherazade, whose version of the One Thousand and One Nights story is somewhat different from the one we know and, often disguised as a man, runs around the Middle East in a series of picaresque adventures. It is all a very cleverly done, very funny and highly original. Well worth reading.
The latest addition to my website is Adalet Ağaoğlu‘s Curfew. This novel is set in Turkey, primarily Istanbul and Eskişehir, in June 1980, three months before a coup will take place. We follow the story of seven main characters, all linked to one another. In all cases, the story tells of their history but also the events leading up to the 2 a.m. curfew on one specific night. In some cases, they are in a hurry to get something done before the curfew starts. All of the characters come from a fairly affluent families but all are struggling with a variety of personal problems, such as relationships, an impending divorce and a general feeling that life is not going well for them. All seven of the characters have problems which they are struggling to resolve and, in most of the cases, do not seem to be any closer to resolving them by the end of the book. Indeed in two key cases, the characters look as though they are going to be worse off than they were at the beginning of the book. Ağaoğlu tells an excellent story of Turkey in a period of chaos.
The latest addition to my website is Yaşar Kemal‘s İnce Memed (Memed, My Hawk). This is a classic Turkish novel about good vs evil, specifically the story of a young man who resists an evil, cruel, grasping landowner, and fights Robin Hood style, for the poor and downtrodden. Memed is a young farm worker, who becomes an outlaw when the landowner tries to force Memed’s girlfriend to marry his nephew and when he punishes Memed’s mother because Memed tried to run away. Memed becomes a hero to the ordinary people of the area, as he fights the landowners, the police and even the government. The novel was very successful, both in Turkey and elsewhere and is an excellent read.
The latest addition to my website is Buket Uzuner‘s Kumral Ada Mavi Tuna (Mediterranean Waltz). This is a complicated novel about love and war. Duna Atacan, as a five year old boy, meets Ada Mercan, two years his senior, whose family – the parents are both famous actors – has moved near to his family. He is immediately smitten with Ada and will remain so throughout the book, but she soon prefers his dashing, older brother, Aras, and Ada and Aras seem destined to be together, though Ada remains close to Duna. At the beginning of the book, a civil war breaks out and Duna, now married to Merich, is called up and, at the same time, he learns that Ada appears to have confessed to a murder. We follow both the stories of Ada, Duna, Aras and Merich, Ada’s cousin who comes to live with the Mercans when her parents divorce, as they grow up and also the nightmarish story of Duna’s adventures in the army. It is certainly a good read as Duna plunges into his nightmare of war and we learn of the complications of the four children as they become young adults.
The latest addition to my website is Sabahattin Ali‘s Kürk Mantolu Madonna (Madonna in a Fur Coat). Our narrator, who has lost his job, gets a job where he has to work with a German translator called Raif. Raif is treated badly at work and badly at home (by his in-laws) and is often ill. When Raif seems to be dying the narrator is given a notebook which contains Raif’s story. He had gone to Germany as a young man and drifted around, till he went to a modern art exhibition. He did not like the art till be saw the final painting, a self-portrait by a woman called Maria Puder, which he christens Madonna in a Fur Coat. He is determined to find her and eventually does. The rest of the book is about their up-and-down relationship and, given what we know from the early part of the book, it is not going to end well. Ali tells an excellent love story as well as the story of a man whose life was defined by one meeting and has been failure both before and since.
The latest addition to my website is Orhan Pamuk‘s The Red-Haired Woman. Our hero, Cem, has father issues. His father has deserted the family but when Cem gets a holiday job digging wells, he sees the well-digger, Master Mahmut, as a father figure. They are digging a well in Öngören, a suburb of Istanbul, and things are not going well. One day, Cem accidentally drops the bucket full of spoil down the well while Master Mahmut is digging. He hears a scream and then nothing. There is no reply when he calls. He flees the site and hears nothing more. He studies engineering geology, has a successful career, and a happy marriage with Ayse and his worries about the consequences of his action fade but do not disappear. Then, one day, he gets a job in Öngören, just by where they were digging the well. His father obsession – he becomes obsessed with the Oedipus legend and the Rostam and Sohrab legend in which father/son relationships inadvertently end, respectively, in the death of the father (Oedipus) and the son (Rostam and Sohrab). This is another good story, well told, even if not his greatest work.
The latest addition to my website is Oğuz Atay‘s Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected). This is the great Turkish post-modernist novel which, sadly, only appeared (and quickly disappeared) in English in a print run of 200 copies in 2017. Superficially, it is the story of a Turkish engineer, Turgut, who is trying to find out about a friend who allegedly committed suicide. In his investigations, he finds that the man, Selim, to whom he thought he was very close, had numerous friends of which he knew nothing. Selim was a big reader and we delve into his complicated reading (only introductions to books) and writing (an Encyclopaedia of the Turkish Disconnected, i.e. those who do not fit in and who often fail in their endeavours, of which Selim numbers himself). Turgut is also considering writing: a novel of the sighs of a tortured soul. And then Turgut disappears. Game playing is also key to the book. The book has been called the Turkish Ulysses and while it is not Ulysses, it is certainly the Turkish post-modern classic. It is sad that it is not readily available in English, as it should be.
Every year, around this time, I read books only from one country. This year I have chosen Turkey. It is no secret that Turkey is currently in turmoil, with massive repression of journalists and anyone opposing President Erdoğan. The only two Turkish writers on my site at the moment – Orhan Pamuk and Ece Temelkuran – have both fallen out with the administration and have faced problems.
I am not going to give a potted history of Turkish literature, not least because I know very little about it. I have provided a few links below if you wish to know more. Like other cultures, Turkey has had its folk tradition, its national epics and its poetry and, also like other cultures, the novel is a relatively recent innovation. The first Turkish novel was said to be Sami Frashëri‘s تعشق طلعت و فطنت; (Tal’at and Fitnat In Love), first published in 1873. It does not appear to be available in English but is readily available in German as Die Liebesgeschichte von Talat und Fitnat and published by Literaturca Verlag in 2013. Frashëri was ethnically an Albanian
The author of the novel that is actually the first novel to be published in Turkish was Armenian, Vartan Pasha (Paşa). His novel Akabi Hikâyesi [Akabi’s Story] was first published in 1851. It has been reissued in Turkish and Armenian but not, as far as I can tell, in any other language.
Often under the influence of French writers, Turkish novels started to appear more frequently in the late nineteenth century. None of them made much of an impact outside Turkey till the publication in 1932 of Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu‘s Yaban, which has been published in French (L’étranger) and German (Der Fremdling) but not English.
One of the problems Turkish literature faces is that their earlier literature was written in Arabic script. Latin script was not adopted till 1928, As a result much of the older Turkish literature is not available to the modern generation who cannot read the Arabic script. This issue is highlighted in one of the books I shall be reading.
Turkish prose fiction did develop from that period and there are quite a few novelists whose work has been translated into English and other European languages though with the exception of Orhan Pamuk and, perhaps, Elik Shafak, they have not made much impression in the English-speaking world. I am looking forward to discovering some of these writers about whom I know little but their name.