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.

Hakan Günday: Az (The Few)

The latest addition to my website is Hakan Günday‘s Az (The Few). This is a very violent and grim book but also a very original one. It tells the story of two people called Derdâ, one male and one female. We start with the female one, who is married off to a violent man, when she is only aged eleven and immediately the couple go to London, where she is kept locked in a flat for five years. She escapes with the help of man who is into masochism – he loves being beaten by a woman in a chador – and gets involved in the drug trade (she becomes a heroin junkie) and porn films and ends up graduating from Edinburgh University. The male Derdâ loses his mother, aged eleven (his father is in prison) and struggles to survie, finally getting a job with a pirate publisher, where he learns to read but starts with Oğuz Atay‘s Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected), a very difficult post-modern novel. He becomes obsessed with Atay and violence breaks out in this part of the book as much as in the first part. Both parts do, finally, connect. It is grim, it is violent but it is original and very clever.

Oya Baydar: Kayıp Söz (The Lost Word)

The latest addition to my website is Oya Baydar‘s Kayıp Söz (The Lost Word). This is a superb novel about a famous Turkish writer, Ömer Eren, who has lost his word, i.e. has writer’s block. We follow his attempt to deal with this, when, at Ankara bus station, he meets a Kurdish couple, The wife has been accidentality shot by carousing soldiers and he not only helps them but later heads out to the Kurdish part of the country to find out what is really going on in that part of the world. Meanwhile, his wife, a successful scientist, is trying to reconnect with their son, Deniz, who has fled Turkey to live on a remote island off the coast of Norway. On a visit to Turkey his Norwegian wife is killed by a suicide bomber and he has retreated even more into himself, living only for their young son. The whole issue of responsibility and how best to live one’s life, as well as the issue of violence to deal with political problems are just two of the many ideas Baydar confronts in this book and she tells a superb story as well.

Orhan Kemal: Cemile (Gemilé)

The latest addition to my website is Orhan Kemal‘s Cemile (Gemilé). This is a fairly realist tale about a cotton factory. A small group within the cotton factory are trying to sabotage the work of an Italian engineer, to get rid of him. At the same time, they are planning to kidnap a young Bosnian woman, whose family have immigrated to the area, as she refuses to marry one of their number and would prefer to marry a young clerk. Her father and his friend used to be guerrillas in Serbia, fighting the Christians, while the rich factory owner hired and supports the Italian engineer. Both plots blow up at around the same time. Orhan Kemal had a considerable reputation in Turkey but has never really become known in the English-speaking world.

Aslı Erdoğan: Kırmızı Pelerinli Kent (The City in Crimson Cloak)

The latest addition to my website is Aslı Erdoğan‘s Kırmızı Pelerinli Kent (The City in Crimson Cloak). This novel is set entirely in Rio de Janeiro and tells the story of a Turkish woman, Özgur, who has been living there for two years. She hates the city, the squalor, the violence, the drugs, the heat and humidity. She is broke, depressed and lonely. However, she is determined to stay there till she has, as she says, written the city. She is writing a novel called The City in Crimson Cloak, a quasi-autobiographical novel about a woman called Ö, whose story is similar to hers, but somewhat enhanced. We follow her on day in which she wanders round the city, seeing its horrors and bemoaning her fate. The day does not end well.

İhsan Oktay Anar: Puslu Kıtalar Atlası [The Atlas of Misty Continents]

The latest addition to my website is İhsan Oktay Anar‘s Puslu Kıtalar Atlası [The Atlas of Misty Continents]. This a wonderfully inventive, quasi-historical, very funny novel set in late seventeenth century Istanbul. It is full of colourful characters: a man who creates an atlas by imagining the places, a cuddly but very real bear, a book owned by Lawrence of Arabia, a siege of a Bulgarian town, a crack thief who disguises himself as a woman to get into other people’s houses and ends up as King of the Beggars, known as Pork Eater, and, in particular, a rich and powerful man, head of the Turkish secret service, who has a mirror that predicts an apocalypse in Istanbul. All are linked by Bünyamin, son of the man who created the atlas, who gets hold of a special black coin, seeks to avenge his father and gets caught up in every conspiracy going at that time. Sadly, it has been translated into French, German and Korean but not English.