Translated by Ümit Hussein
Burhan Sönmez is a Kurdish novelist and lawyer from Turkey who is a winner of the equivalent there of the Booker Prize, and he is the recently elected President of PEN International. Notably, he was seriously injured after being assaulted by Turkish police in 1996, and received treatment in the UK, where he lived in exile for several years. He now lives and works in Istanbul and Ankara.
I read his novel Istanbul, Istanbul, published in English in 2016. The back cover of the book announces that “Istanbul is a city of a million cells, and every cell is an Istanbul unto itself”. The story focuses on four political prisoners in detention in a shared underground cell, where they are left to languish while waiting to be taken off for interrogation and torture. The prisoners come from different walks of life: Demirtay is a student; the Doctor is a medical doctor; Kamo is a barber; and, finally, there is an old man, Uncle Küheylan.
Most of the scenes of torture take place off-screen, as it were, but the novel remains harrowing, and the author takes some inspiration from his own experiences of imprisonment. However, the fictional prisoners are sustained and saved from total despair by a web of stories, jokes, fables, oral folk tales reminiscent of The Arabian Nights and memories of their lives above ground, as they share a fantasy world with each other. They even share imaginary meals with each other:
“We played out the scene before us: the Doctor spread a white tablecloth over the table. He fetched cheese, melon, fresh borlotti bean salad, hummus, and haydari yogurt dip. He added toasted bread, salad and cacik. He then made room for dishes of rice-stuffed vine leaves and spicy ezme salad. Finally, he placed a vase of yellow roses in the center. … As he poured Raki into the glasses he checked to see he had put the same amount in each.”
Speaking on Radio 4, the novelist said that he had wanted to divide the city, not in terms of its rather cliched role as a bridge torn between – or linking – East and West, but in terms of the disparity between those unmoored from the normal passage of time and from society, in their underground cells, and those living in the light and bustle of Istanbul. Scenes of horror are juxtaposed with evocations of beauty.
“The odd thing about Istanbul was the way she preferred questions to answers. She could turn happiness into nightmare, or the other way round, make a joyous morning dawn after a night devoid of all hope. She gained strength from uncertainty. They called this the city’s destiny. The heaven in one street and the hell in another could suddenly change places.”
The book’s sub-heading ‘A Novel’ suggests that the fact that it is a work of fiction might be in need of underlining. Of course, the political climate in Turkey has become increasingly repressive under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, particularly following constitutional reforms after a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Perhaps due to its reliance on fable, the novel, though vividly imagined, somehow didn’t emotionally involve me and I found it dragged a bit, although I did really want to love it. Right, onto the next book…