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22/12/2008

Turkey in Frankfurt

A survey of the Turkish books that attracted the most critical attention at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair


The two most important new discoveries in Turkish literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair were Murathan Mungan and Perihan Magden. Perihan Magden is the writer of "Two Girls", a novel set in Istanbul about an intense friendship between two girls that spirals out of control. The book was a bestseller in Turkey and was adapted to film by Kutlug Ataman. The SZ and the FAZ both profile the author at length. Magden is not only a highly successful novelist in Turkey, she is also a outspoken columnist who has had to defend her freedom of speech several times in court. "Perihan Magden is a thorn in the side, a scourge for all warmongers and generals, high-handed public prosecutors and bull-headed nationalists, and she goes at them with a sledge hammer in her books and her column in the left-wing liberal paper Radikal, which is compulsory reading for the Turkish intelligentsia," wrote the FAZ. But she also has little patience for the Kemalist Istanbul elite: "Those so-called secularists. They think they are the golden leaders of the land. They look at the Anatolians and the AKP and say: 'WE are the beautiful Turks. WE go to the ballet. WE should be in power. Not those farmers. How dare they!' And so they run to the army for protection," the SZ cites Magden as saying.

Murathan Mungan's novel "Chador" is a short novel (110 pages) about a young man who returns after a war to his homeland to find his family gone. The "Soldiers of Islam" are now in power. All pictures have been taken down and the women have disappeared under the chador. The critics were heavily impressed. "It is an Islamic 'Waste Land' where only nightmares bloom. Or an Islamic "The Man Outside" (Wolfgang Borchert) whose cantus firmus is the almost inaudible shutting of doors, which gently close as remorselessly as coffin lids," wrote Die Welt. For the SZ, Mungan "puts his finger on fundamentalist thought better than any headscarf controversy." The taz is impressed by the novel's linguistic elegance, which die Zeit went as far as to call "bewitching magic-dust prose."

In "Istanbul was a Fairytale" Mario Levi tells the history of Jewish Istanbul through one family's story. The NZZ praises the novel's "poetic beauty" and is reminded of Joyce. For the FR it is a tender chronicle of a century, a book "which tells of Jewish merchants, artists, and pickpockets in Istanbul, a work of voids explained, of speculations." Born in 1972, Murat Uyurkulak's first novel "Tol" describes Turkey's left-wing radical scene in the seventies. It is a tale "furiously" told, says the taz, rendering a vivid image of the repressive apparat on the one side and the "sense of powerlessness and hatred of the state" on the other.

The reviewers were deeply moved by Orhan Pamuk's (website) "The Museum of Innocence" which is pending translation into English. It is a novel about a passionate love affair that ends tragically. In it Pamuk describes the "socialisation" of emotions right down to the most intimate impulses, writes Die Zeit, which was "impossibly moved". As were the FAZ, the taz, the NZZ and the SZ. Only the FR had to suppress a yawn and found thinking about the novel more worthwhile than actually reading it. The critics were also impressed by Elif Shafak's "The Flea Palace", a novel which recounts the stories of ten very different inhabitants of an Istanbul apartment building. Sebnem Isigüzel's "Am Rand" (on the edge) tells the parallel stories of Leyla, a diplomat's daughter, chess whizz and queen of the Istanbul garbage tip, and the psychologically disturbed musicologist Yildiz.

And two literary greats were unearthed for reappraisal: Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1921) and Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963). Lovers of pared-down language will probably find Tanpinar unpalatable. The heroes of his books "A Mind at Peace" and "The Clock-Setting Institute" are struggling to come to terms with Atatürk's modern Turkey. Nuran, the love-struck hero of "A Mind at Peace" is not only longing for his beloved but also for the poetry and the warmth of the Ottoman Empire. Die Zeit genuflects before the Tanpinar's "metaphorical artistry", the FAZ gets mildly protective about the "spiritual glow". The NZZ makes the Proust comparison. Nazim Hikmet is one of Turkey's best-known poets. Ammann publishers have brought out a new selection of his poems in Turkish and German, which are "a revelation" for Die Zeit. Suhrkamp has published Hikmet's autobiographical novel "The Romantics", whose "radical modernity" knocked the socks off the FR. (It is unfortunately out of print in English).

Hats were also taken off to Klaus Kreiser's Atatürk biography. The critics are not only overwhelmed by the mass of information and the knowledgeable explanations but also by the vital and enthralling portrait that emerges. Necla Kelek's critical book on contemporary Turkey "Bittersweet Homeland" has received just one ill-disposed review in the taz so far, which accuses her of writing with the "pathos of a convert". It seems freeing oneself of one's religion is not the done thing. Funny that the Left should suddenly be so insistent about the values of tradition, religion and family – at least in others. Kelek's book is all about why she is rejecting all this. But it also takes on the rifts and problems in Turkey's political camps – Kemalist and AKP alike. And it reflects on Turkey's role in WWII, which is not really one to be proud of. There is a lot to be learned from in this book which is packed with information and highly personal at the same time.
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