'Lady Life,' Ahmet Altan’s latest novel, opens with a haunting scene. Thousands of acres of tomato farms in Turkey, he writes, transform into a “scarlet-coloured dump” overnight after an unnamed country announces it will cease importing the farmers’ tomatoes – a nod to Turkey’s real-life practice of halting exports to third countries for economic reasons.
The ban will have deep consequences for the central protagonist, a literature student named Fazil. He takes a part-time job while at university after his family falls into financial ruin because of their sole investment in the now unsaleable tomatoes. His father dies of a stroke after a long night mulling over his sudden bankruptcy.
Fazil joins the overeducated new poor, his recitations of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner falling on deaf ears while working as a casting assistant at a trashy television channel. The setting, where much of the book’s action unfolds, is part of the author’s veiled critique of the anti-intellectual sentiment of Turkey’s current establishment, and the country’s apparent obsession with social media, pop culture and instant fame.
Altan, a prominent Turkish dissident journalist and author, wrote the book while imprisoned for his alleged role in Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt, and the book’s publication coincided with his release in 2021. The English edition appeared this March, the result of a collaboration with his longtime translator and fellow literary activist, Yasemin Çongar.
Altan’s use of the novel to comment on interdependent rural and urban decay is timely. In a memorable moment during Turkey’s recent election race, opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdarolğu held up an onion during his unsuccessful presidential campaign, to show that the cheapest food commodity had become unaffordable.
Empathising with millennials enduring poverty and emigration, Altan’s coming-of-age tale of precarious middle-class urbanisation presents a choice: emigrate west, or citify in “New Turkey”.
Early in Lady Life, Fazil peruses Istanbul’s second-hand bookstores and sees August Sander’s photograph Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. The seller’s surprising gift of the photograph to Fazil is as bittersweet as the German photographer’s 1914 group portrait, foregrounding a young trio of suited rural workers in search of cultural liberty. “A single photograph altered the room. The place had now become my home,” Altan writes of Fazil’s tragic, inner-city resettlement.
By the novel’s conclusion, Fazil chooses to remain in Turkey to be nearer a woman his senior, nicknamed “Lady Life”. She is more vivacious than his peer and other romantic interest, Sıla, who also studied literature and ultimately decides to move to Canada. The story’s romantic drama references ideas and books about class consciousness. As Ataturk says: “The villager is the lord of the nation.”
This is a thread picked up by exiled Kurdish author Burhan Sönmez. 'Stone and Shadow,' published in English in April, centres on a tombstone engraver named Avdo who identifies as being not from his birthplace, but his chosen place of rest. He resides in a cemetery in Istanbul, where Sönmez begins his multi-layered, postmodernist yarn.
Avdo is an orphan whose first memory is that of being lost in a crowd in the south-eastern city of Urfa, crying alone. Although he’s unsure of his age, he presumes he’s 10 when he meets another street urchin who later becomes known as “the man with seven names”, each of which represent a holy figure in Islam.
Introducing himself as Isa, the Arabic and Turkish equivalent of Jesus, his fast friend takes him to live with Josef, a gravestone mason, who eventually imparts his craft to Avdo.
Sönmez writes in the vein of an earlier, modernist compatriot, Tezer Özlü, whose shapeshifting chronologies recall the visionary transnational literatures of the interwar European avant-garde, from Italo Svevo to James Joyce.
Stone and Shadow is equally indebted to the magical realist Yashar Kemal, a fellow Kurdish writer renowned as the first Nobel Prize for Literature nominee to hail from Turkey. Avdo’s story is as fragmented as the stone of his ancient cemetery.
As a Proustian remembrance of Turkey’s century past, Stone and Shadow covers a kaleidoscopic range of historical events, from inner Anatolia during the 1937-1938 Dersim rebellion, in which the Turkish military gunned down thousands of Kurdish rebels, to the student riots protesting American imperialism in the 1960s and 70s. And onwards from Rome and Berlin, Jerusalem and Cairo, Sönmez adapts the style of the Kurdish dengbêj storytelling tradition.
Semi-autobiographical in nature, Stone and Shadow partly takes place in the Haymana Plain outside Ankara, where Sönmez was born in 1965. He breaks down the multiculturalism of Anatolia’s heritage through the eyes of Avdo, who wanders from town to town as a young man, learning a language everywhere he goes – Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, Syriac and Greek. Later, Avdo befriends a sailor whose European multilingualism rallies an older, worldly rurality.
The novel’s swift, natural transitions between locations break down the barrier between city and country. The cemetery, where much of the story takes place, is a liminal zone between life and death, urban and rural, memory and experience.
The narrator plucks out remembrances from Avdo’s painful life of separation at birth, not only from his family, but his sense of place, mirroring Sönmez, an exile himself.
The graveyard is named after Merkez Efendi, a dervish, analogising the timeless struggle between core and periphery that confines Turkey’s minorities to the embattled south-east, as Turks are bound to Turkey.
A third novel coming to English-language readers this month, is courtesy of Turkey’s inveterate liberal cultural figure Zülfü Livaneli, whose protest songs galvanised a generation.
Livaneli’s 'The Fisherman and His Son' is a melodramatic story of a boy drowned at sea, whose place in the family is filled by a migrant orphan found in the water. It mirrors elements from the novels of Altan and Sönmez. And, like them, Livaneli suffered state persecution, returning from exile in 1984 soon after launching his literary career.
Deniz, the word for sea in Turkish and the name of the fisherman’s dead son as well as his adopted replacement, is a casualty of history, just like Sönmez’s Avdo. They are bereft of family and nation.
Livaneli, however, narrates his novel from the perspective of the father, Mustafa, who despite being a hard-bitten seafarer is no less vulnerable to emotion.
Mustafa has lost his son and finds an infant boy amid the floating debris of a migrant shipwreck. He succumbs to fits of violent despair, torn between his illegal adoption and his dead child, hacking away at invasive fish species in the Aegean Sea to take his aggression out on the inhuman, marine wilderness.
Livaneli is heavy-handed in his use of allegory, portraying people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria who have died in sea-crossings from Turkey to Greece, while simultaneously evoking environmentalism as he bemoans the overspill of foreign pufferfish and lionfish from seas farther east, as well as the unwelcome infiltration of fish farms along Turkey’s endangered and beloved western coast.
As in many of his novels, Livaneli’s awkward, pseudo-literary visions of race and gender reflect the imbalance of his unique privilege among Turkey’s elite, looking down at victims of war and climate change like an aerial photographer.
“His skin colour was different, more olive, and there was no resemblance at all,” Livaneli writes of Mustafa’s adopted son, whose mother howls in near-voiceless desperation in the background, eschewing greater regional diversities.
Despite overambitious tendencies, these three books allow readers to understand the effect of global urbanisation on Turkey’s diverse rural ecologies. Nowhere more passionately than in the voices of its exiles and prisoners.