postmodernist perspectives in the Turkish novel

reviewed by ersan üldes

According to Habermas, modernity is an ‘incomplete’ project. If applied to Turkish Literature, modernity is a movement that has only just begun, and as yet remains undeveloped. From this perspective, it is not too difficult to imagine the dimensions in which postmodernism will make its presence felt, in a land with no modernist experience.

It would however, be wrong to conclude that postmodernism cannot find a place in Turkish Literature. There have previously been examples of postmodernism in Turkish literary fiction. But these examples should be classified carefully because the broad embrace of postmodernism, which is open to all ideas and styles, can deceive us. Unfortunately, postmodernism in the Turkish novel has until now generally been reduced to a few techniques, and the authors who claimed these techniques are only incorrectly labelled as postmodernist.

Samir Amin, Egyptian professor of political economy says that postmodernism is ‘a fluid idea which is ready to accept everything since it finds nothing objectively correct.’* In consideration of the examples mentioned in the previous paragraph we can accept that this critique, which was directed at the area of political theory, is accurate. Yet if we direct the discussion towards literature, we see that postmodernism is not nostalgia for non-culturalism, or an expectancy of multiculturalism but is instead a romantic frustration with culture in general.

Of course we cannot talk about a set of rules. It would be unfair to the essence of postmodernism. However, it should not be ignored that postmodernism is more than just a tendency towards a few illusory approaches or a couple of fictional diversions. Yes, postmodernism is a fluid idea as distant from any ideals as could be possible, yet it recycles this fluidity into the channel of little narratives. Its essential medium is a little narrative. While an author benefits from the advantages of the big narrations, he or she cannot be said to be the writer of a little narration simply because a few known postmodern techniques were used, or because of the inclusion, in an Austerish way, of his or herself in the text either nominally or bodily.

In considering these points it is certainly possible to discuss some examples, other than those from Turkish novels, which approach the ‘essence’ of postmodernism. Yet, in confirmation of Habermas’ assertion about the incompleteness of postmodernism, it can clearly be seen that the examples of postmodernism in the Turkish novel were written with an understanding which was not contrary to modernism and did in fact maintain a relationship to it.

Garden of Oblivion by Latife Tekin

Latife Tekin’s Garden of Oblivion (2004), provides a thorough analysis of the concept of ‘oblivion’. Yet this analysis is not made through a modern understanding but rather from a postmodern perspective.

The book focuses on a group of people who have chosen oblivion in a forgotten land, and their struggle for fellowship and coexistence with nature. The identification with the characters in the novel and their attributes during this struggle may at first seem pre-modern.

In the early part of the novel, it appears that in probing the ‘oblivion’ concept, Latife Tekin will be contented with random philosophies in the form of aphorisms such as, ‘It’s necessary to remember in order to forget. At least in order to remember what you have forgotten…’ and ‘Death enters our minds when we remember something, not when we forget’, as the novel closes we are abruptly left in an unexpected position.

The idea of oblivion is given to the anti-heroes of Latife Tekin’s book and in their hands it becomes like a toy, as they relentlessly and breathlessly play harmless games with the concept throughout the book. Garden of Oblivion is made more unforgettable by the taking of the ‘oblivion’ concept from the anti-heroes after which the author hangs it on an empty point, and as she is leaving, she wears a hidden Smile on her face in a gesture of mock contempt for the reader.

Just as we were about to say that despite its literal beauty, ‘many aspects of oblivion are forgotten in the novel after all’, Işık Ergüden’s letter ‘I Didn’t Want to Forget Anything’ coming at the very end of the novel gives signs of a new expansion that can be added to the oblivion concept from the perspective of ‘not forgetting’ and it shows how deeply Latife Tekin is ‘aware’ of the concept that she has analyzed in her novel.

While such a vivid and audacious channel was formed and while it was possible to direct the novel in a more ‘political’ direction by pointing to the organized tortures meted out on the oppressed people, it was a laudable post-modern decision not to take the narrative in this direction, pinning the novel to the space, or rather tacking it to the chest of the reader without causing pain… In this way, Latife Tekin is able to distinguish herself from an Ursula K. Leguinish utopia trial.

It is also a conscious and exceptional preference that the text reaches us via a language that has now come ashore… It seems that Latife Tekin has solved her problems with the waves of her language. This moderate and hesitant language subtly pounding the shore creates a carefully concocted text.

The narrator Tebessüm (meaning Smile) is included in the novel in a highly aesthetic way. Tebessüm’s approach to especially Şeref and Ferah and the persuasive bickering which she experiences with these characters, transforms her into a full character. After all of the handicaps of first person narration are easily overcome by Latife Tekin’s skilled pen, one of the best narrators of any Turkish novel is able to emerge.

In addition, the text gains a postmodern identity by not intensifying the drama of any character, deliberately breaking the continuity and integrity of meaning, not giving too much credit to modern internal monologs and creating a pool of illusion in general by not applying autonomous techniques.

The dialogues prevent us from easily attaching ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ labels to any of the characters in the novel. The gardener-hunter character Cömert can be understood as the single negative character in the novel; however, some sentences show him as a persuasive and consistent character and enable us to warm to him.

‘I don’t shoot any creature without standing up and showing myself, a rifle should never be fired from a hidden position, it’s immoral. Do only human beings have pride? You’ll give a chance to the animal, but it’ll surrender after the struggle. You can understand this from its position, from the look in its eyes. The animal dictates the moment in which you have to kill it. It says, all right, shoot me, shoot now, I’m defeated. Then you shoot it. How many people in the world consider whether or not animals are praying? In my opinion my friends they pray by kneeling down, they worship…’

Olgun feels this way if we look from a socio-economical standpoint ‘We are on the ground floor of life’, it is possible to claim that the persons who choose to live in the ‘Garden of Oblivion’ are the elitist regulars of a penthouse instead of the ground floor. After all, we are talking about a group of people who have the chance to choose the direction of their lives. The characters in the novel stand predominantly close to art and have philosophical traces in their past. They believe that if they can avoid these traces then they can join the happy minority who are able to live in the moment. This minority seem more successful than us, the ordinary people, in casting off the burden of life as well as in their analysis of the world.

The inhabitants of the ‘Garden of Oblivion’ were successful in all areas of life although they experienced some small difficulties. There is however, one area in which they were unable to succeed. The ability to completely forget… They began to remember while focusing on forgetting. ‘People who are scared to experience something that they will be unable to forget’ cannot escape from remembering even in a motionless land.

Tattering of Holy Volume by Semra Topal

Many philosophers and authors, especially Borges, always considered the idea of a successor and predecessor as a serious matter. The literary value of a work is dependent on the works both written before and after (or the works that will be written). Borges even says: ‘The great authors also create their predecessors.’ For instance, if Kafka who wrote his works at the beginning of the 20th century had not existed, then Hawthorne who wrote at the beginning of the 19th century would probably not even be remembered today, and, certainly nobody would be able to describe him as ‘Kafkaesque’.

If we narrow the frame of Borges’ argument and apply it to an individual author, we can arrive at a similar conclusion. The works of an author, written during his or her life are mutually interacted. For instance, the last novel of an author has a profound affect on our perceptions about his or her first novel, so we also encounter this idea of a successor and predecessor when considering the body of work of a single author.

It seems possible to evaluate Semra Topal’s last novel Tattering the Holy Volume from this perspective as well. Semra Topal considered thoroughly the holy field and the things it symbolizes in her previous novels. Stand Up on the Hind Legs (In Salta Dur), The Night Smile (Gece Gülüşü) and The Wound (Yara) she devoted her text to shaking the basis of a social life, the rules of which are accepted so unquestioningly. We can say that she also wrote Tattering the Holy Volume with a similar purpose. However we have to mention that she cleared and deepened the channel in which her narrative flows, and forces us to position her previous novels in an even more ‘esteemed’ place. With her last published novel, she condemned marketing taglines such as ‘erotic novel’ which had been used for The Night Smile to the trash can. It is unknown what she will write next but for now, we can easily talk about a Semra Topal novel which knows its place in the literary world and which can deepen the literary channel in which it flows.

Another feature of all Semra Topal novels is that they are fictionalized with the use of an excessively complex imaginary world view. Although in its current state, the world that we live in is at least as complex as in Semra Topal’s novels, this reality, in other words this projection of the existing world may not be interesting to ‘some’ readers. Anyway, when the text, language and fiction are considered, it can clearly be seen that the author has no expectations regarding ‘some’ readers and does not take them into account.

In Tattering the Holy Volume Semra Topal tries to capture this complex and relentless world by passing from one character to another and from one mood to another with the guidance of her narrator, Peri Nacar. The place could be a dirty café where people come to learn of life from the lips of fortune tellers; a hospital where the patients are entrusted to the reluctant nurses, fatalist doctors or even to God; or a wholesale store called Mona Lisa, where the women ‘dying with the ambition of dressing up’ try on ‘bodysuits with snap buttons’ in the store’s ‘lousy’ bathroom. The city could be Mersin, the Mediterranean seaport; Eskişehir, the ‘European city’ or Adana, the liars’ city. The character could be Enjoy, the fortune teller who is ‘the most feminine person that could possibly be seen in a man’s body’ or the distant physician Harun. The only thing constant in Semra Topal’s text is the state of not receiving anything in return for any action, as seen in the people who have dark, meaningless, small plans but have absolutely no tomorrow in an entirely complex world which, although explanations are offered, remains dark and uncertain. These characters who certainly have an equivalent in real life are suffering from a sense of being cast adrift because they are unable to profit from the efforts that they make in life. They are not sterile, they are thrown to the edge of life and remain there; since they are excessively far from the centre, instead of going beyond the limit while copying the centre, they choose to create their own ‘insignificant’ centres.

In Tattering the Holy Volume, she tells stories of numerous persons which at first seem independent from one another. The glue that binds these stories and places is Peri Nacar, the narrator of the novel. Through her eyes the stories of the characters who inhabit places such as the fortune telling café, the wholesale store called Mona Lisa and the university hospital, are revealed. In fact, the interesting characters and groups are countless: The Woman with Blue Skin, Tatar Psychologist, weedboys, etc…

While the narrator can at times, seem far from these characters and appear to be looking at them from an aerial view like some prosperous godlike entity, the author refuses to accept the infinite possibilities and comfort that this state offers and jumps nakedly into the events. This is a quite important literary choice which is rare in today’s novel but is a necessary one… Whereas in a novel which focuses on extreme lives, and somehow includes fortune telling and legend, the problems can easily be solved with a familiar and classical narrative style, Semra Topal prefers a way which is difficult but literal. Nevertheless she manages to overcome the problems of the ‘I’ narrator and to maintain her own persuasiveness through that character.

Tattering the Holy Volume was written from a perspective not fully claiming to be modern or postmodern but at the same time not turning its back to either of them. While the author flirts with the idea of the modern novel via the ‘big’ thoughts passing through the mind of the narrator who tells of ‘small’ lives, the feeling of alienation the text gives, both the loneliness and sense of non-being, in short the thoughts being sanctified by the individual. Similarly the text doesn’t close itself to a postmodern perspective by ripping apart not only the holy volume but also the text and constantly avoiding the ‘big story’.

‘…I could see that all the women were dying of boredom and attacking here and there. They didn’t know what to do from the tallest to the shortest of them, even their children were in the same state and I don’t know what the big creator might say about this situation. While the women were in the throes of the disease of boredom, the men were trapped by the disease of vulgarity and this mostly serves the interests of the TV idiots; probably there was never an era in which such large piles of money were made so deceitfully.’

‘The wives and husbands became similar to each other over the course of time, just like every wife and husband. Therefore every marriage in the world becomes like incest in time. The couples become incestuous couples.’

It’s also possible to encounter humorous elements although it doesn’t permeate to the text. This humour shows its slight existence in parts including ‘the deserter with yellow pants’ and ‘the rooms furnished by hospital donors’ and ‘the books and authors in the axis of a religion of success’.

‘“There is a fire in me that I cannot describe,’ said the man by rubbing his rings to his nose as if he were taking snuff, ‘look, even my eye sockets are different from those of other people, mine resemble those of an oxe’. I spent half of my life as a deserter, then one day while I was attending my nephew’s wedding, they rushed me off to the army. Can you imagine? They disgracefully took a man, who was dancing with his arms outstretched, as if he was a murderer. So you cannot escape from anything. They armed a man dancing, naturally the cheer vanishes.”’

Semra Topal tries to tear apart the holiness not only with physical desire but also with the power of the mind, she somehow manages to reverse the action of rape. The language which stays on the shore and is seduced by the holy field, holy structure, blessed hands and holiness gets the chance to dirty the ear of the holy one, once again with Tattering the Holy Volume.

The Lands That We Are Torn Away From by Mahir Öztaş

Mahir Öztaş is known particularly for his stories and also his novels which include Estrangement (Soğuma, 1995) and Raising a Desire (Bir Arzuyu Beslemek, 2002). In his latest novel the political atmosphere of Turkey from the 1970s until the 2000s is depicted with an unfamiliar technique.

The Lands That We Are Torn Away From is not a typical period novel because the author doesn’t reflect the soul of the period materially. In other words, instead of a familiar style of scenery, costume or plot, he allows the memories to burst forth from the mind of his narrator. Consequently, from this point of view, The Lands That We Are Torn Away From is a ‘modern’ memoir within the novel; the first-person narrator interrogates himself, his relationships and his political struggle with a relentless self-evaluation which continues through the years.

‘As a result, beyond being an autobiographical work, the purpose of this novel is to divulge through experiences kept alive in the memories of individuals, the secrets of a dark period which can be defined almost as pre-historical and all these diseases of that period, which spread like an epidemic.’

In the introduction to the novel, the narrator provides us with a summary of the journeys that he has made to different countries. Experiences in other countries, especially in the Far East and London are provided from the perspective of a persuasive first person which accentuates those feelings of exclusion and of displacement, by emphasizing the political meanings of that area.

The narrator, who returns to his country at the end of his travels, observes how political life developed in Turkey during the 1970s, again from an entirely individual perspective. This political evaluation by the individual establishes the main plot of the novel.

‘While all relationships were disintegrating rapidly, the thought of a more active community couldn’t unfortunately become more than a vain dream. The order adapted almost everything to itself, dissolved them in itself.’ (p. 12)

The essential problem of the narrator who contradicts society on almost every subject is that he is always face to face with an awkward dilemma. This is not only a difficulty of making an absolute choice between the countries. The narrator simultaneously bears two different personalities that contradict one another, and in the course of time one dominates the other. On one hand, a personality that tries to write a novel by analysing life from an existentialist perspective; on the other hand, the fighter personality coming to the fore with its activist side… In the flow of the novel, this duality is reflected best by the activist personality who conceals his gun behind the volumes of Proust…

The introduction of the novel is also its conclusion. The novel doesn’t return to the place in which it began but finishes as it begins in a manner reminiscent of Bernhard’s texts. The fiction is not chronological and straight. At the same time the text has a mind of its own, that is, it looms over the writing process and frequently creates illusions. So the individual order established by modern memory is shattered and turned into a postmodern structure. In the last point, the meaningless clambers above everything else.

By the way, the novel that the narrator plans to write is The Lands That We Are Torn Away From. The author focuses on the cause of fictionalizing this text, and divulges his opinions regarding the world of literature alongside the theory of his text through the narrator.

‘As he thinks uninhibited and different thoughts simultaneously, his story is usually reminiscent of a mosaic. An enormous picture which is formed with a cut and paste technique within which we lose ourselves from time to time but willingly or unwillingly find ourselves again at the end.’

‘Waiting to be comprehended was a vain dream. When it comes to the world outside of us, to the thing we call the world of literature; it is certainly far more unjust.’

In The Lands That We Are Torn Away From, you will just start to question the persuasiveness of the narrative. For instance while you may resent the narrator who tells us that the revolutionist character Cem Baysal participates in a dinner given to big bosses, takes an active role in that dinner and even joins in the negotiations as if it were a common place event, you will later be relieved to see that the narrator is also not content with the situation and that some other similar points are not skipped in the fiction.

However several political situations and persons are defined by ‘coarse’ adjectives such as conservative, reactionary, characterless, bigot, ordinary, vulgar, etc., and this partially lowers the tone of the text. Because at the very beginning, we confront a thoroughly sceptical text which is generally removed from clear definitions and established with an abstract structure. The word most used by the narrator is ‘I suppose’… Often ambiguous descriptions of certain characters are preferred. Such as, ‘he said that he was painter’ instead of ‘he was a painter’ or ‘he thought he was an actor’ instead of ‘he was an actor’. Nevertheless, while strong suspicion and uncertainty are dominant features of the text, such ‘coarse’ adjectives do detract in a small way from the integrity of such a novel.

In addition, the novel never concentrates on any singular event entirely but builds the readers’ expectations about the possible outcomes of these different events before providing a deliberately anticlimactic conclusion. Although placing the text in an exceptional and special place technically, there is a danger that through repeatedly using this technique, elongation and pomposity arouse in the form, especially in the narrative. Yet all of these are the author’s conscious preferences. From the beginning to the end, the novel advances under the guidance of some literary concerns which have been determined in advance. The author doesn’t allow his pen to flow into other literary realms by surrendering to overtly beautiful dialogues, splendid landscapes or shocking events; and always behaves within the literal map that he has drawn.

* Samir Amin, Specters of Capitalism