I’m starting this review off with a disclaimer. I know nothing about Turkish literature, this novel would probably be the first Turkish novel I have read (if I have read something previously it didn’t leave enough of a mark to quickly be recalled). Therefore I may have missed some of the subtle references to the Ottoman Empire, even though there are plenty of not so subtle ones. I could well have misinterpreted the “Westernisation” theme, or completely missed a number of cultural references. For this I can only apologise.
This novel is written in five different first person voices over 32 chapters. The narrative being linear and picking up with a new set of eyes where the last narrator left off.
Narrator One – Recep the servant of the household, the illegitimate child of the grandfather who used to run the house. He laments his dwarfism, and his lower status in the family circle.
Narrator Two – Grandmother, she is awaiting the yearly visit from her grandchildren and spends her days and nights recollecting her marriage to a failed Doctor who spent his days writing an encyclopaedia of all knowledge and drinking (and obviously spawning out of wedlock children) at night. Her sections are also filled with contemplation on simple material objects and the passing of time.
I’m still lying here and I still can’t sleep. When night comes and I’m all alone, then I’ll breathe in the scent of these things, taste them, touch them with my hand, and I’ll think: The water, the pitcher, the keys, the handkerchief, the peach, the cologne, the plate, the table, the clock…They all sit there, just like me, all around me in the quiet emptiness, they creak, they rattle, in the silence of the night, they seem to be purifying themselves of sin, of guilt. It’s then, at night, that time is truly time, and all the objects come closer to me, just as I come closer to myself.
Narrator Three – Hassan, the child of Recep’s brother (who is also an illegitimate child of Grandmother’s husband and crippled). He is uneducated, bored and trapped in the former fishing village which has now become a haven of the nouveaux rich who sunbathe and do little else. He is drawn to the friendship and styles of the local right-wing nationalists.
Narrator Four – Faruk, one of the grandchildren here on his annual visit. He has a failed marriage, is following in his grandfather’s footsteps of being a failed writer (he is a historian) and a drinker.
But this renewed excitement did not last long, and again the galactic haze dissipated and disappeared. My obstinate mind, following its old habits, was making its customary demand of me: I had to find a little story, to make up a convincing tale! The structure of our brain probably has to change if we are ever to see and understand clearly, not just history, but also the world and life itself. That passion for listening to stories leads us astray every time, dragging us off to a world of fantasy, even as we continue to live in one of flesh and blood…
Narrator Five – Metin, another grandchild, who dreams of working in America, he quickly slots in with the nouveaux rich of the town. He’s aimless, empty and falling hopelessly in love with another of the local rich girls. Drugs, alcohol, fast cars and boats is Metin’s thing.
But the five voices are living through a politically turbulent time in Turkey, and with Nilgun (another grandchild visiting) being a Communist and a childhood friend of Hassan there is sure to be an explosion of ideals, families and prejudices. Even though we have the different voices the narrative does feel seamless, however there were some narrators (and styles) that I preferred to others. The repetitive nature of Faruk’s historical notes, which show us the melting pot of Turkey but also the insignificance of random past events, personally became quite tedious and I question their length. The inane ramblings of the love-sick Metin also seemed contrary to the plot, although the modernisation and Westernisation of Turkey could be seen through his character he felt a little thinly sketched for mine.
Interestingly enough “Grandmother” is the character name in five of her seven chapters, however there are two where she is known by her name Fatma. These are the chapters when her female force (not her Muslim suppression) is shown, and it’s not always a pretty picture.
A nice introduction to Turkish Literature as Orhan Pamuk must be considered a master, given his Nobel Prize, but personally not my favourite from the Man Asian Shortlist which I previously mentioned being “The Garden of Evening Mists” which was announced as the winner a few weeks ago.