Book of the month: Ahmet Altan

Writing is hard. There’s the problem of finding ideas rich enough to spin stories out of, the battle with self-doubt, the struggle to maintain focus, the financial insecurity and the frequent tangle with rejection. For most of us who write in English, however, the challenges largely end there.

The same is not true for writers in many other languages. With the skewed international market favouring anglophone books, making a living is frequently even more difficult for authors in other tongues. In addition, those in regimes hostile to freedom of expression often have to contend with attempts to limit their work and their lives, an experience all too familiar to the author of my latest Book of the month.

I first heard about Turkish writer Ahmet Altan a few weeks ago when I read an article by him in The Author, the UK’s Society of Authors’ members’ magazine. The piece was a striking account of what it is like to write inside a prison cell. The celebrated novelist and former newspaper editor is something of an expert on the topic: he has spent much of the last 18 months in detention for charges including ‘giving subliminal messages in favour of a coup on television’, ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ and ‘attempting to overthrow the government’.

I was gripped by Altan’s writing. Deeply personal and yet so lyrical that it almost tipped over into poetry at times, the article was a defiant assertion of the power of the imagination in the face of tyranny. I lost no time in seeking out one of Altan’s novels to read in English.

Endgame, translated by Alexander Dawe, has been called a Turkish noir novel by several reviewers. The premise makes it clear why: a writer retires to a remote community only to find himself plunged into intrigue when the place reveals itself to be a hotbed of jealousy and murder. Having been turned into a killer himself, he sits alone in the centre of the town, awaiting the dawn and arrival of those who will surely come to seek revenge for what he has done. The novel spans this night, taking us back over the events that have led him to this point.

So far, so dark and thrillerish. Indeed, the early pages contain many passages that could cheerfully sit in any number of mystery novels written around the world. From the suspenseful evocation of the sinister and controlling Mayor Mustafa, to loaded hints about strangers being unwelcome and rumours of shady activity surrounding the ancient church on top of the hill, where treasure is thought to be hidden, the text is rife with mechanisms calculated to keep the pages turning. There are also a number of local details that are as intriguing as they are disturbing – the hitmen who are so nonchalant that they arrive in minibuses, for example.

Yet, as is so often the case when we English speakers try to shoehorn stories from elsewhere into our prefabricated boxes, the fiction label ‘noir’ (reportedly popularized by crime fiction editor Barry Gifford in the 1980s) risks squashing this novel out of shape in prospective readers’ minds. For one thing, the pace is by no means always commensurate with the and-then-and-then-and-then of much genre fiction. The narrative meanders at times, digressing to consider existential questions or stepping back from events to see them with a distance that creates room for fresh insights. Take, for example, the narrator’s response to witnessing a man being shot dead in the local coffee shop:

‘You’re sitting there reading the horse racing pages and some guy comes and blows your brains out.

A brain picturing galloping horses was suddenly splattered over the coffeehouse floor, sending imaginary horses racing through the grass. I could see the jockeys in colourful outfits riding on their backs. All of the hopes and schemes, frustrations and desires, jealousies and passions that had resided within the folds of that brain were then washed away with a bucket of water.

The sum of a man’s memory had been destroyed.’

There is beauty and wistfulness in much of the writing. The opening sequence, for instance, in which the protagonist claims to be able to see the town’s sleeping inhabitants’ dreams escaping out of windows and chimneys to frolic together is touching. The same is true of insights such as: ‘We can’t fit a whole person into one life. This life we live is too small for all desires.’ These are the kind of observations that resonate across cultures and genres, and stay with you long after plot and character detail are gone.

Some aspects of this book will be challenging for those used to mainstream anglophone fiction. The frequent references to God and sin are striking; although the protagonist claims not to be a believer, he frequently rails against the creator, often chiding Him for placing him in a badly plotted novel. In addition, the earthy and occasionally misogynistic presentation of women may be off-putting for some – the narrator has no hesitation in indulging in a little objectification now and again. There’s also the challenge of unfamiliar pacing, which sometimes sees Altan lingering over a scene or idea that an English-language writer might hurry through and visa versa.

Such wrinkles in alignment are almost inevitable, however, when it comes to encountering literature from elsewhere. Indeed they are often part of the joy. And if it’s joy you’re looking for, this book has plenty to offer. Funny, thoughtful, savage and audacious, this is a novel that will enthrall and surprise. Like its author, it cannot be constrained within boundaries set by others. It is entirely itself.

#AhmetAltan #FreeTurkeyMedia Find more information on the campaign to free Ahmet Altan here.

Endgame (Son Oyun) by Ahmet Altan, translated from the Turkish by Alexander Dawe (Canongate, 2015)

Picture: ‘prison‘ by Raffaella on flickr.com

Book of the month: Sema Kaygusuz

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Short story collections have traditionally been a hard sell in the UK. Unlike publishers in the US – where short pieces have long been a key part of the literary culture – companies in the British book industry have tended to focus almost exclusively on novels, with only well-known writers getting deals to release assortments of shorter works.

In recent years, particularly since short-form writers Lydia Davis and Alice Munro scooped the Man Booker International Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature respectively in 2013, things have started to change. Last year, the Telegraph newspaper reported that, according to the Bookseller, short-story sales had risen by 35%. And where sales figures lead, publishers tend to follow.

If anyone needed further evidence of the power and value of short stories, The Well of Trapped Words  by Turkish writer Sema Kaygusuz makes a compelling case. Peopled with outcasts, misfits, trauma survivors and eccentrics, the collection makes for arresting reading. From the tale of the mentally disturbed girl whose self-loathing focuses itself on her feet, to the account of the old man driven into a frenzied search for water after years of drought, the pieces pit characters against the norms of their communities, rattling propriety’s cage.

The brevity of many of the tales allows Kaygusuz to write with an intensity that might be difficult to sustain – and to read – over longer stretches. Revealing how emotion seeps into and colours the world, tainting sight, taste and smell, she captures moments of crisis vividly. A particular favourite of mine is this description of the moment before a woman boiling fruit in her kitchen realises a snake is about to bite her toddler in ‘The Viper’s Son’:

And this is when the whole world went silent.

The whole world. Even the birds stopped singing. Standing over the plums, Zilver suddenly noticed that the only sound she could hear was their bubbling.

There are also impressive longer pieces, often portraying an emotional reversal and frequently exploring gender politics. For example, two of the strongest stories, ‘Stolen’ and ‘Deep Inside’, delineate a devastating shift in relationship dynamics, in both cases leaving the men bewildered as the women they thought of as theirs assume control.

The precision of the language in many of the pieces is striking – and here praise must go to translator Maureen Freely too. My copy is riddled with pencil marks picking out phrases that distil a complex truth or emotion into a small cluster of words – the feeling of ‘regrets steaming inside me, and somehow, strangely, washing me clean’, for example, or the description of ‘a girl whose life is fading at the creases. Its multi-coloured fabric […] fast unravelling’.

There is also a winning streak of wit and irreverence in the writing, as when the narrator of ‘Tacettin’ tells the reader that the title character had ‘a neck twice the size of yours and maybe five times the size of mine’. I don’t know about you, but I think this is the first time a book has called me fat.

Sometimes the structure lets the writing down a little. While a few too many of the stories rely on the device of a final section told from another perspective to tie up the loose ends, a number feel a little loose and meandering. In addition, passing references to political figures and events in a couple of the pieces may prove trip hazards to readers not familiar with Turkey’s history (although the smattering of footnotes do help smooth the path).

All in all, though, The Well of Trapped Words is a testament to the power of storytelling. By turns funny, alarming, familiar and strange, this collection will surprise, challenge and delight. Hats off to Comma Press for publishing a work not only in a genre but also from a language that has traditionally been underrepresented on British shelves.

The Well of Trapped Words by Sema Kaygusuz, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely (Comma Press, 2015).

Turkey: mystic union

 

You could be forgiven for thinking that Turkey has only produced one writer in recent years: bestseller and Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk. He was certainly the top tip in the Turkish recommendations I got for this blog and, never having read him before, I was very tempted to join the party.

Then I stumbled upon a copy of Elif Shafak’s latest novel in Foyles and, intrigued by the biog’s claim that she is the most widely read woman writer in Turkey, I decided to leave Pamuk to his adoring public (at least for this year) and give Shafak a go instead.

It cost me a bit of googling to be sure that Strasbourg-born Shafak qualified as my Turkish entry. Having lived in the US, UK and Turkey, the feminist-leaning writer — whose second English-language novel The Bastard of Istanbul led to her being charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’ (the case was dropped before trial) — seems more of a citizen of the world than of any particular country. According to her website, she prides herself on writing that feeds off ‘journeys and commutes between cultures and cities’.

Shafak’s latest book reflects this. Weaving together the story of non-practising Jew Ella, a housewife-turned literary agent’s assistant in Massachusetts, and a novel about the friendship between Sufi poet Rumi and wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz in 13th century Anatolia that she is given to assess, the narrative tests modern Western culture against medieval Muslim mysticism and finds it wanting. As Ella becomes engrossed in the text and in a correspondence with its author, she finds herself forced to re-evaluate her assumptions and priorities, with dramatic results.

There’s a lot to like about the book: it’s well-written, it’s insightful, and it’s painstakingly researched. It raises some interesting points about the fundamental commonality of world religions — religious wars, the novel-within-the-novel’s author Aziz suggests at one point, may arise from nothing more than ‘mistranslation’.

But there is an uneasiness at the narrative’s heart that is hard to ignore. As Ella and, especially, the 13th century mystics become increasingly absorbed in their quest for spiritual perfection and the true, muscular love of the title, there is insufficient weight given to the sacrifices their quest entails — the child bride left to curl up and die in a corner, the son whose loyalty is curdled into bitterness by neglect.

In addition, the perspective leaps between characters, particularly inside Aziz’s novel, necessitate some awkward repetition of events. This can be irritating, as can the character of Shams of Tabriz, who trots out one parable too many on occasion.

Nonetheless this is an enjoyable read and — judging by the sales figures and rave reviews elsewhere — clearly one that has struck a chord with many readers. Drop me a line if you’re one of them. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. Publisher (this edition): Penguin (2011)