Category: Turkey Page 1 of 3

Orhan Pamuk: Veba Geceleri (Nights of Plague)

The latest addition to my website is Orhan Pamuk‘s Veba Geceleri (Nights of Plague). This tells the long and complex story of the fictitious Mediterranean island of Mingheria. The story opens in 1901 when Mingheria is part of the failing Ottoman Empire. There has been an outbreak of plague (though denied by the Governor) so the Sultan sends his expert to deal with it. He is soon murdered. Next to arrive is another expert, married to the Sultan’s niece. We will later learn that the narrator is the great-grand-daughter of the couple. We follow a complicated plot with the many problems of dealing the with the plague but also Mingheria’s move toward independence. The population is part Greek, part Muslim, bringing its own problems but, of course many break the quarantine and there are also sorts of devious plots and sub-plots, not least when the Great Powers and the Sultan get involved. We follow the story more or less to the present day though the main action is at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is a first-class, complex story, with plots and sub-plots, dirty deeds, international politics, love and romance and a primer how not to deal with a plague.

Zülfü Livaneli: Huzursuzluk (Disquiet)

The latest addition to my website is Zülfü Livaneli‘s Huzursuzluk (Disquiet). A Turkish, Istanbul-based journalist, Ibrahim, learns that Hussein, whom he knew as a child when they were growing up in Mardin, near the Syrian border, was killed by Neo-Nazis in Germany. He goes back to Mardin and finds out that Hussein, a compassionate man, had been helping in the refugee camps and, in particular, had been helping the Yazidis. Hussein had fallen for a Yazidi woman, Meleknaz who had a blind baby and had broken off with his Turkish fiancée, even though Yazidis and Muslims cannot intermarry. Much of the book is about the suffering of the Yazidis at the hands of ISIS but it is also about Ibrahim’s attempt to track down Meleknaz and find out why Hussein had been shot (but only injured) in Mardin and been killed in Germany. He (and we) learn a lot about Yazidi culture and religion but Livaneli also tells an excellent story about racism, sexism and the differences between moderate and extreme Islam and also about how someone can change.

Selim Özdoğan: Die Tochter des Schmieds (The Blacksmith’s Daughter)

The latest addition to my website is Selim Özdoğan:‘s Die Tochter des Schmieds (The Blacksmith’s Daughter). This is the first in a trilogy which focuses on Gül, a Turkish woman, who grows up in Turkey in the period immediately after World War II and, by the very end of the book,will emigrate to Germany. We follow her story from before her birth to just prior to her departure to Germany with her two daughters – her husband is already in Germany. She is determined and hard-working and despite the various problems in her life – her mother dies when she is young and her father soon remarries, her husband drinks, gambles and hits her, she is seen by her in-laws as a servant – she is a survivor. As well as Gül, we get a host of other characters – family, friends, neighbours – to give us a full picture of life in Turkey in that period.

Leylâ Erbil: Tuhaf Bir Kadın (A Strange Woman)

The latest addition to my website is Leylâ Erbil‘s Tuhaf Bir Kadın (A Strange Woman). This is a feminist novel about Nermin, who is nineteen in 1950 and struggles both to be independent and to be seen as an intelligent woman, rather than merely as a sex object. Her mother, old-fashioned, a strict Muslim, is her worst enemy. We follow her early struggles, the story of her father, a naval engineer, who is dying, her father’s funeral, where her mother is out of control, and her life as a left-wing activist, trying to help the poor but not succeeding with that or in her personal life. Erbil gives us a worthwhile account of the problems facing a feminist and someone with left-wing views in a still very traditional and conservative country.

Sema Kaygusuz: Yüzünde Bir Yer (Every Fire You Tend)

The latest addition to my website is the Sema Kaygusuz‘s Yüzünde Bir Yer (Every Fire You Tend). This is an intense feminist Turkish novel, whose starting point is Dersim rebellion in Eastern Turkey, which was brutally crushed by the Turks in 1938, with many killed and many sent into exile, including the author’s grandmother. We follow four strands. Firstly there is the exile of the Dersim people. Secondly is the narrator talking to the unnamed granddaughter of a woman who escaped the massacre and went into exile, and whose journey we follow. The third involves Hızır, a prophet/angel who assumes multiple disguises as he wanders through the book and through the centuries, generally helping where he can. Fourthly, we follow a series of other stories, set both in the past and present. The whole is superb and powerful work about language, violence, Turkish homogenisation, feminism and figs (which play a key role in this book).

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.

Elif Shafak: Baba ve Piç (The Bastard of Istanbul)

The latest addition to my website is Elif Shafak‘s Baba ve Piç (The Bastard of Istanbul). This book tells the story of two families, one a Turkish family living in Istanbul and the other an Armenian family, living in the US, with most of their ancestors having been killed in the Armenian Genocide. Both families are dominated by women. Indeed, the Turkish one consists of four sisters, only one of whom, the youngest, has a child, a daughter, Aysa. We do not learn who her father is till the end of the book. The sisters had one brother, Mustafa, who emigrated to the United States and never returned. He married a divorced woman, Rose. Her ex-husband, who never remarried, is part of the Armenian family and their daughter Armanoush/Amy is very much involved in discussions of things Armenian, particularly the Genocide. Indeed, unbeknown to her family, she heads off to Istanbul, to try and track down her roots, staying with Aysa’s family. We learn that the Turks are almost completely ignorant of the Armenian Genocide, something the Armenians discuss all the time. Aysa and Amy, the younger generation, try to bring the two sides together and this issue is the key theme of the book. Indeed, Shafak was prosecuted for insulting Turkishness in this book because of her relatively sympathetic view of the Genocide.

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