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.