I’ve added another “difficult” work to my reading agenda, not happy with slowly working my way through Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” I am now tackling the Turkish “Ulysses”, Oğuz Atay’s “Tutunamayanlar” (“The Disconnecte d”). Like my irregular posts here about “Bottom’s Dream” I intend to post about my progress through another work described as “untranslatable”.
In 2004 UNESCO listed Oğuz Atay’s “Tutunamayanlar” (“The Disconnecte d”) as an important literary work in need of an English translation. First published in 1971 & 1972 (as two books due to the publisher not being able to fund a single release), it has entered the Turkish psyche and although the book wasn’t “discovered” until after Oğuz Atay’s death, it has now been reprinted in Turkey at least seventy times.
Known as being “untranslatable” the work finally made its way into Dutch in 2011 and now finally it is available in English, albeit in a very limited print run of only 200 copies. The book uses various forms of Turkish, “such as the heavily arabicised Ottoman Turkish and the purist, reformed Turkish” (thanks to The Untranslated blog) this making the work of a translator difficult, and begs the question of how to render these different styles in English? As you will see in my posts, the use of French, Middle English and English is the approach the translator has taken.
In the introduction to “The Disconnecte d”, a potted history of language reform in Turkey is presented;
The Ottomans had no great interest in pre-Islamic Turkey, and, besides, the official language was full of Arabic and Persian. With the nationalism of the revolution this changed. In the 1920’s and 1930’s some wild theories flourished: that it was the Turks who had brought the beginnings of civilization from central Asia to Anatolia, that Turkish was the primitive language from which all others derived. By the time in which this book is set these theories were more or less dead, but their ghosts lived on, and here and there haunt the narrative. Besides, the Turkish Language Society (TDK), founded in 1926, was still active. Its ruling never had the force of law except in school curricula, but Arabic and Persian words were gradually purged.
This is melding of language, let’s leave the cultural to one side for the time being, is represented, in translation, in various forms;
As the Americans say, seriosity killed the cat: of course my word play is lost in translation. (P50)
…he was teaching tally-craft (algebra).
He practices healing, also of lower creatures (veterinary science). Among his other interests are purethought (philosophy) and finelimning (painting). (P167)
I could not like your salon-salle-à-manger, your enormous foam-rubber bed – it reminded me of the sea – and with it, the matching gilded garderobe and the matching chiffonier and the matching dressing-table. You had got rid of the Turkish language in your house. (P12)
The book has a simple narrative plot, and opens with Turgut who lives “squeezed between points the latitude of which was forty-one degrees, zero zero minutes North and forty-one degrees, zero zero minutes one second North; the longitude was twenty-nine degrees twelve minutes East and twenty-nine degrees twelve minutes one second East”. Thanks to Google maps we can now see where that is:
Now an empty block on the outskirts of Istanbul.
It is at this location that Turgut learns of his childhood friend, the petit bourgeois Selim, who has “voluntarily abandoned this world”. This suicide leads Turgut to examine Selim’s life in more detail to understand what could have led his final act. A journey of self-discovery then takes place.
Selim might have accounted for this feeling as suffocation under the petit bourgeois comforts such as the salon-salle-à-manger in front, two bedrooms at the back, kitchen-pantry-boxroom-bathroom along the corridor, and his sleeping wife of children. Turgut scrutinised his surroundings, but as yet without understanding. The walls were covered with ‘works of art’, remnants from the days when he used to draw.
However, the main narrative is only a sub-plot here, it is through the weaving of experiences, backtracking, reliving scenes, and examining Turkish history that the intricacies and revelations occur.
In the opening sections the influence of encroaching, clashing cultures is portrayed through detailed descriptions of décor, painted walls, intricate cigarette holders, ashtrays, the trappings of a material life. Why I had recollections of Patrick Bateman in Brett Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” I don’t know…
You had got rid of the Turkish language in your house.
The “superfluous man” in Oblomov from Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel is also a recurring character, this is not only a reference to Russian culture it is a character that the deceased Selim aligns himself with, the superfluous coming to the fore. Another classic I will personally revisit.
We are playing at making the time pass…And we can do it; it does pass, though not very usefully.
We have a wonderful soliloquy on boredom and a fascinating mathematical game to ease said boredom, a game played using the fourteen bus stops on a regular journey. The irrelevant, the trite all adding up to a rich character development.
Yes, Selim. Pouf! Our language mirrors our way of life.
In this short quote the use of a French word, is subtly showing the breakdown of the Turkish culture as the influences of the West encroach, however it is not only the West, there is also the influence of the East, mingled with Turkish history. Chapter six opens with a dream sequence containing Sultan Abdülhamit, 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the last Sultan to exert effective control over the fracturing state, and Mustafa Kemal, army officer, revolutionary, and founder of the Republic of Turkey, serving as its first President from 1923 until his death in 1938.
Our protagonist, Turgut the childhood friend attempting to reconcile to suicide of Selim, lives a banal existence, this is borne out through his daily wanderings:
He looked at the salon-salle-à-manger: it was laid for supper. He walked to it, dragging his slippers, and in an unenthusiastic voice he spoke, looking towards the kitchen: “So what has my clever wife cooked for tonight?”
Turgut’s journey to understand Selim’s death leads him to visit various characters, including Selim’s mother, where he discovers another unknown friend of Selim’s, whilst there he goes into Seim’s room, the place where Selim killed himself.
He sought the story of the Disconnected.
Words, loneliness gave life its salt, its taste;
Death and eternity he yearned to embrace.
As part of his ongoing investigation Turgut makes another visit, this time reading a poem, written by Selim, of 600 lines “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow”, after the reading, apparently written in a different hand, is a “commentary” of the poem “that confuses things even more”, a 100 page explanation of the poem itself!
Part of the “commentary” includes the history of the BILIG-TENUZ, inscribed stones, “The Sea of Knowledge”, the equivalent of 12,000 pages in our books today, ranking the stones in 7th place among the world’s encyclopaedias, it is the sum of all knowledge 2014 years ago, archaic, containing the story of pure Turks, Gök Turks.
The Disconnected (Disconnectus erectus) : A clumsy and easily frightened animal. Some can even be the size of a human being. In fact, at first glance, they even look like humans. The grip of his claws is weak. He is incapable of climbing hills, and comes down a slope by sliding (frequently falling as he does so). He has almost no hair on his body; he has large eyes but weak sight, which is why he cannot see danger from a distance.
Later described in the notes, and appearing in the poem, are the ‘seven Prophets’, who ran away from Central Asia to Chine, and returned to Anatolia, where they wrote the ‘Catechismas’, of 72 sections, ‘The New Order’, “Chronicles’ and “Praxis’ these are then described.
Two hundred and twenty-two pages into this 718 page work and here endeth Part One of this stunningly detailed work, an existentialist journey through Turkish history, a self-discovery, a play on language and culture, nationalism and politics. A book that has revelations in every sentence, why has it taken so long to be released in English, and an even greater damnation is the limited release of only 200 copies, simply because there is a belief readers aren’t interested in this style of literature. It is possibly true, however I can assure you, I know of a handful, via my social media interactions, who are relishing this reading journey.
If you would like to secure on of the limited editions of this book I suggest you contact the publisher Olric Publishing quickly as the last time I was in contact there was only a handful remaining, yes the book is expensive, however it is stunningly presented, on archival quality paper, and you will be the proud owner of a very very rare gem.