a journey through political time

A Journey Through Political Time

reviewed by ersan uldes

In the West, Turkish literature generally has been considered interesting only as long as it fulfils some orientalistic expectations. In this arena, politics is usually left in the background; especially if it does not offer a marketable aspect. A ‘marketable’ political element for a Middle Eastern country is usually limited to the type of writer who uses certain favourite patterns with mystical, legendary and religious elements, while attempting a supposedly illicit act in his own country. This could be a writer outcast for writing texts that are condemned in his country. However, these ‘forbidden’ writers are, in fact, not as forbidden as they seem in their own country. Their book sales are high, they have big advertisement campaigns and they are well publicised in the press.

That said, there are important writers in Turkey, who stand outside this type and do not rely on these ‘marketable’ elements, writers who are aware of the historical development of world literature, who contribute to the art of novel on a universal scale, instead of focusing on some merits that are thought to be Middle Eastern or Anatolian. It is worthwhile to acknowledge these important literary figures, as well as the best selling ‘forbidden’ authors.

Three novels published in 2007 are notable in this respect. The first deals with the recent past, the second with the future and the third with almost an entire century. The common characteristic of these three novels is that they are concerned about politics as well as the art of novel…

The Past:

Shahbaz’s Marvelous Year of 1979

by Mine Sogut

Looking back over Turkey’s 20th century, we come up against a critically important year: 1979… It was a year of deprivation, with queues to buy margarine and local brands of unfiltered cigarettes. When the cooking gas canister runs out, it is impossible to find a new one for days. But the deprivation is somehow shared. What cannot be made routine and shared is mostly pain.

Many unresolved murders are committed, blood is shed in all parts of Turkey, students shoot each other, unionists are assassinated and workers executed. On top of this, planes crash, ships collide and trains are derailed. But 1979 is also important for being the eve of the military coup of 12 September 1980, which has deeply wounded Turkish society and whose effects can still be seen today.

Mine Sogut is one of Turkey’s new generation of novelists. In her third novel, she enters in the bloody Turkey of 1979 through her protagonist Shahbaz. A mysterious creature, Shahbaz conducts an inventory of the bloody acts of the year, using an exposition resembling a fairy tale: Society is divided in two, as if cut by a knife; people are carrying guns, instead of handkerchiefs; dead bodies are left in deserted streets, along edges of rivers, under trees; everyone has a burning desire for revenge; both sides consider themselves absolutely right. It is pure nightmare.

‘This year, Shahbaz’s marvellous year, was the year the living dreamed of the dead. So many people died… murdered in the streets that the dreams couldn’t find themselves any other language than insanity.’

‘The city became inured to the people who died from rabies. Rabid people who were shut in isolation rooms only came out when dead. Their relatives watched them from the other side of the iron bars, biting their lips and their hearts wrenched, while they were foaming at the mouth and dying screaming.’

Is Shahbaz a jinni or a bird? We can’t know. We only know that Shahbaz witnesses every murder, and even causes the murders by tricking people. Considering this aspect, Shahbaz can only be a demon. But is he really?

Shahbaz is the storyteller, the commentator but also an interceder. A revolutionist woman trapped between life and death in the Inn with Three Doors, survives through Shahbaz’s efforts, tenderness and attention. The woman wants to forget ‘her own short history’. However, Shahbaz, ‘who retains the horrible human history in his memory’, will be reminding the woman of that whole year, and one by one of the murders, the acts of torture and the massacres committed in that year, and together, they will judge these events.

Mine Sogut has explained the sharp division of the society during those years through the metaphor of twins, who sometimes lose touch with each other, sometimes become enemies, and sometimes protect and look after each other…

‘We look like a lunatic who murders his twin with his own hands and then carries him in his arms. Sadly we can never bury that corpse.’

Shahbaz’s Marvelous Year consists of 12 chapters, each covering a month of 1979. The almanac of 1979 added to the end of the novel, offsets the effect of a mostly fantastic text, introducing us to the harsh aspects of reality and freeing us from the surrealistic effect of previous pages. The almanac brings us into painful confrontation with reality after the mystic delineation of Shahbaz, whom we could never really know, and the fictional expression of the novel. This encounter with reality supports the idea that fiction can never be more merciless than the truth. The true stories are premeditated, more incredible and the violence is inconceivable…

Does this violence and massacre justify the military intervention of 1980? Mine Sogut does not seek a direct answer; but there is another reality, the repression and violence of the subsequent junta reaches such a level that even the events of 1979 seem trivial.

With Shahbaz’s Marvelous Year of 1979, published in 2007, Mine Sogut has proved to be a writer worthy of close attention. She has previously published two other novels: Number Five Sevim Apartments (Bes Sevim Apartmani) and Red Time (Kirmizi Zaman).

The Future:

Towers of Silence – 2084 –

by Kaan Arslanoglu

This time we are in the future, exactly 77 years from now… Kaan Arslanoglu’s novel, Towers of Silence – 2084 –, takes us decades ahead with some non-utopian divinations, and alluding to George Orwell’s 1984.

With 1984, published in 1949, Orwell had foreseen that the world would enter the hegemony of totalitarian governments where the people would become guinea pigs, watched 24 hours a day by the repressive and fascistic regimes. When 1984 arrived, most people thought that Orwell was wrong, but an important part of what 1984 had emphasized became reality, even if in different manifestations. But in a literary work about the future, the accuracy of prophecies is of secondary importance. The value of the work should be sought in the literary hypothesis it forms of the era in which it is written and its power to re-examine that era.

Turning some established thinking about this era upside down, Kaan Arslanoglu invites us to re-examine the world in Towers of Silence 2084 . And he does that without being subject to science-fiction’s interest in adventure, through a woman narrator, with a language that recalls holy books and legends, and with philosophical and sometimes political interrogation.

‘A smooth consciousness is important. Life is short, even for us. Troubles that can be eliminated should not harass our minds, even for a few minutes and not at all for unnecessary anxieties. Forgetting is a holy act; a clear and empty head is our most desired fortune.’

‘We had sealed our holes, may the souls of the saints be pleased, the saints who loathed our animal bodies and felt shame for the bodily desires. We had already forgotten about how the ridiculous acts of urinating and defecation may happen and what outcomes they would present. They must have felt like an irritating torture and also a humiliating punishment to us. Only I had heard that the living were walking around conceited with that condition. A creature that lives with the holes, taking pleasure in them. Funny, disgraceful and disturbing.’

In his novel, Arslanoglu talks about a civilization founded by those who survive a great disaster on earth. It is an era where the population has been greatly reduced, the technologies of the mind and body have advanced to such an astonishing level that brains can be reconstructed, and even all human qualities can be programmed. Sexual pleasures can be provided by love machines and orgy ceremonies are common practice.

‘The icebergs went down; the waters dragged the corpses as if they were reeds; the hellfire from the forests roasted the cities. The stones roared, flames rose up from the ground. All these happened because of our idiocy. We procreated so much that we could not fit into the seas, the plains, the skies. We consumed the crops like grasshoppers, we dried the waters. At last, we strangled each other. Yet we had been warned. Everything, every detail had been announced, one by one, in the holy books. The omniscient had seen it a century ago and had told it, had announced it. We didn’t listen, didn’t pay attention, didn’t take it seriously; to forget and to ignore it, we brainwashed ourselves.’

We have already begun to face the dangers Kaan Arslanoglu points at. There is therefore no reason to question the possibility of the technological infrastructure envisioned in the novel. We can at least say this: It is evident that humanity will meet a future similar to that in the novel, even if it is a level ahead or a level behind and even if practices are a bit different. But the real success of the novel lies in its power to examine the world today, especially the Middle East, by looking from a fictional geography and to carry this projection  to the near future.

Towers of Silence – 2084 – is a dystopia and a noteworthy contribution for its exposition that serves fiction and its philosophical approach as a literary work…

The Present:

Letters of Circumstance and Time

– Homeland Lessons –

by Ibrahim Yildirim

Ibrahim Yildirim’s latest novel, Letters of Circumstance and Time – Homeland Lessons –, is the first book of a planned 20th century trilogy. Taking Turkey’s Village Institute experiences as its axis and using an interconnecting assembly, Yildirim builds a structure that gradually gains dimension and richness.

The Village Institutes had an important place in the Republic’s project to modernize Turkey; they were an agency for both education and land reforms, and they were seen as vital to raise a more educated generation. However, these institutes were shut down by the government in 1946 on the grounds that they bred communism.

The author explains that he fictionalised the letters of Neset Ilhan and he includes himself in the first cycle of the spiral plotline: this strengthens reader’s sense of reality. Neset Ilhan likened himself to the Arabic letter vav, in a sense to a comma, and wrote cheap romantic novels in secret. Ilhan started to write a book about the Village Institutes in the 1970s but he did not complete it for 28 years.

Yildirim has managed to write a novel that takes place in four different eras, encompassing the 1940s when the Village Institute were experienced, the 1970s when the attempt was made to put these experiences into book form, the late 1990s when the letters were written and today where Yildirim is speaking to us as the Godlike narrator… There could scarcely be a more appropriate construction for a 20th century trilogy. The plotline, characters and narration are all well balanced.

The literary aspect of the protagonist and narrator Neset Ilhan should not be overlooked. Neset Ilhan is just as ‘special’ as all the noteworthy ‘faceless’ characters whose names have been engraved into literary history, such as Watt, Underground Man, Oblomov, Mersault, Bartleby, Gantenbein and Samsa… faceless and ironic in his existence.

‘The man I saw in the mirror of the toilet that I so often locked myself into, was confused; I shouldn’t have continued to put him in an impossible situation. But no! I wasn’t a parasite fly; I was a buffalo with an enormous wound, fresh and bleeding in his soul, and a mind full of holes; I had to stand up and go after those who had wounded me.’

Homeland Letters uses human conditions and anxieties such as the fear of epidemics and hunger, it does not seek only to illuminate the Village Institute experience. It can also be read as a text that points to the ‘failure of the paradigm’ on both literary and political grounds.

Homeland Letters is highly recommended to anyone curious about the real Turkish novel that stands outside the merely marketable.