Monday, September 04, 2006

A literary guide to Turkey

Michelle Goldberg, author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, writes that "Turkey is both one of the [Middle East's] great success stories and the birthplace of many of its miseries, since it was the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent Western redrawing of national boundaries that gave the world such unfortunate artificial configurations as Iraq."

Goldberg's literary guide to Turkey continues:
If you want to understand how the multiethnic Ottoman Empire gave way to the fierce nationalisms of the modern Middle East, there's no better book than David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace (1989). Fromkin tells the story of how, after World War I, the European victors carved up the Ottoman Empire into the countries that exist today. His sprawling history portrays the prewar ferment among the modernizing young Turks, the exploits of Mustapha Kemal--now known as Ataturk--the army officer and revered founder of modern Turkey, the adventures of Lawrence of Arabia and the intrigues of various kingmaking Western Orientalists.
There is enough non-fiction in daily life, so Goldberg suggests a few tantalizing novels as well.
Turkey's most famous writer is Orhan Pamuk, and his hallucinatory 2002 novel Snow-- first published in English in 2004--is a parable of the country's current struggle over religion and democracy, in which liberalism is backed by the undemocratic might of the military. The story begins with an exiled poet and former student radical named Ka returning to Turkey from Germany and traveling to the eastern city of Kars. He's ostensibly investigating a string of female suicides, but he's really hoping to kindle an affair with Ipek, a ravishing former classmate.
That female suicide epidemic, Goldberg notes, is unfortunately all too real.

Goldberg also recommends "the brilliant Elif Shafak [who] writes novels that are audaciously postmodern and politically courageous." One Shafak title available in translation is
The Gaze (1999), an utterly strange, surprisingly riveting novel that goes back and forth between the story of an obese women and her dwarf lover in modern Istanbul and that of a freak show more than a hundred years earlier.
In April 2007 Shafak will publish (in English) The Bastard of Istanbul, from which Goldberg quotes this brilliant passage:
My father is Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, my great-uncle is Dikran Stamboulian, his father is Varvant Istanboluian, my name is Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, all my family tree has been Something Somethingian, and I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives in the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustapha!
Read the rest of Goldberg's essay here: it's a wonderful eyes-open pitch for Turkey and its literature.

There are two excerpts from Kingdom Coming here.

Other items in Salon's series include:
A literary guide to Japan
A literary guide to Martha's Vineyard
A literary guide to West Texas
A literary guide to Togo
A literary guide to Brooklyn
A literary guide to Miami
--Marshal Zeringue