When we move from country to country, culture to culture we recognize many things in their generalities: carpets, clothes, foods, country life, urban life, no matter where we are from or where we are standing we know what they are. It is in the specifics and the differences between home and here that strike us: a Turkish carpet is not an American carpet, nor a Persian carpet. A meal at a Turkish restaurant is not the same as one in Chicago. Even the same food comes out dressed differently. Having a milking herd in Turkey is different that having one in Wisconsin: in Turkey I saw a man herding his 4 cows down a road while riding on a bicycle; never happen in Clark County, Wisconsin.
The same can be said of story telling. Novels, recent as their idea is in human culture, are roughly the same around the world – invented human beings set into into a more or less cohesive story, doing recognizable things — particularly love and loss, losing and finding self and meaning– and of a length between 1 and 20 hours of reading time. Literate people will know what a novel is when they see one, or hear hear one. The details of difference are what make them delightful — and not just the necessary and minute differences that distinguish one book, or one person, from another, but the differences between a set of Turkish characters and a set of Americans, the imaginative landscape that is different between cultures and which is shared by authors within those cultures.
Latife Tekin in her Swords of Ice (2010) is the first Turkish author of this decade, other than the obligatory Orhan Pamuk, I’ve read. My earlier reading was of a few of the classics of the 50s by Yasar Kemal and Orhan Kemal which were very fine, indeed. Both men were writing as realists, though of different kinds: Y. Kemal with the romanticism of brigands, elopements and a kind of Turkish Robin Hoodism; O Kemal with a more brutal realism — work, and injury, in the factories, hanging onto life at its edges with hope the only support between it and hell. Tekin however is a different writer altogether, a marvel of invention and image, sometimes almost zanily so, sentences and ideas that are both her own, unlikely outside her own Turkish culture, yet bright and penetrating when we read them.
- … a factory watchman who had sunk deep inside the silence of his own sense of poverty….
- …the Volvo had turned suddenly into a side street, headed down dark alleys, and of her own free will, had parked outside the door of a nightclub called “Bella…”
- For three nights Halilhan’s brain wrestled with his heart as he looked for some way to make peace between these two precious bodily parts.
- Stripped of all family security, Aynina had found a home on the streets. She kept her mouth tight, so it wasn’t easy to guess what kind of struggles she had gone through before offering Mesut a taste of her fatal sherbert.
Keep in mind that these are all translations from the original Turkish, and into the English of Britain, not the U.S. As in all translation there is some room for ‘enhancement,’ ‘clarification,’ or indeed, dulling-down, or mis-understanding. But surely ‘the brain wrestling with the heart” and collapsing them into ‘precious bodily parts” is a very original expression of something we all know at first hand, even if we would never describe it in this way.
Something as simple as two brothers waving goodbye to their exasperating older brother after a meeting …”but the darkness swallowed up their gesture and the silence stretched out before them, becoming a road that divided into two,” is a wonderfully drawn microcosm of a whole world of familial relations, sketched as with the few lines of black wash with which a great artist gives us a clown, a villain or a lover who’s lost.
The novel is slender, 139 pages, but it suits the quick description and quirky characters. I’m not sure I’d want 300 pages of a man who writes a love letter to an as yet un-introduced possible wife, one who has already sent a 10 point list for what she requires in a husband, that begins like this:
For thirty years I’ve been spinning in life’s whirlpool in search of my soul mate. If we consider our sun, you’ll be surprised to hear that more than half the stars in the sky are not left on their own in the way that ours is. … I know that those stars, like a couple, are paired to move around the same beauty. I can give you the example of two birds flying around the same fortress, or of two fish that constantly swim around that plant we call seaweed. Some pairs of stars are so big they share the fate of falling away from each other … hoping that I’ll be forgiven and wishing that you won’t mind too much mind hearing this, I want to say that I wouldn’t want the wife of my dreams to be like that….
The writer of the letter, Gogi, is the impossibly wool-gathering friend of three brothers, and their three wives who, as his contribution to their well being, offers to mediate between them during a pie-in-the-sky business adventure which the oldest, Halilhan, is convinced is connected to his receipt of the skirt-chasing Volvo which he is only the passenger in. The story, as the language, leaps and bounces like an old-fashioned pin-ball machine, lights going off, laughter erupting, near burial of the action in a side pocket before it pops out and loops around the story again.
There are some translation speed bumps worth mentioning, especially in the early pages. The opening line is “Baggy-eyed from weeping to distant laments.”
Laments are, in some vocabularies, songs, which certainly could be ‘distant,’ but for me a lament is something the mourner herself does; it comes from herself and is not ‘distant, and the weeping and lamenting are of a piece, not two things, one of which arises in response to the other.’ Thus ‘weeping to distant laments’ — while not impossible– makes me have to stop and figure out what is meant here.
Or, the second sentence: “What in this world is left that could amaze those who’d so brazened it out with fate?” This is understandable also, but is also a speed-bump. Is ‘What in this world…’ literal or figurative? ‘What [thing] is [actually] left in this world’ to amaze us? or ‘What in the world (are you talking about?) And ‘brazen’ –with its colors of shameless and insolent behavior? Perhaps, but how about, ‘What is left in the world that could shock those who had brazened it out with their fates every day.’ For a final bump, try this:
‘To keep the reality of dispossession weighing down on them at bay — the one certainty as sharp and absolute as death– these ‘have-nots’ have been communicating in signs, silently, for hundred of years, murmuring on in the secret language that only they can ever learn.’
I won’t offer an alternative but certainly ‘the once certainty….’ has to be moved closer to its antecedent, ‘reality of dispossession’ otherwise ‘bay’ gets in the way as ‘the one certainty.’
Perhaps these examples come from the start-up awkwardness Parker and Kenne felt as they worked their way into the text. And nothing I am saying is meant to imply translating, from any language, much less modern Turkish, is easy. Not too much later it all smooths out. Tekin’s riotous imagination, even when most surprising, enters our understanding as smoothly as Halilhan’s Volvo might carry it.
‘True, Halilhan paled at the joy he felt. Maybe at just that moment a steam of ecstasy was hissing out a leak in his brain into his soul.’
This is a wonderful phrase, and there are many like it. If Latife Tekin is a sample of contemporary Turkish writing I think the culture and the republic are in pretty good hands.