by Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

“What if I never get an answer?” wonders Boratin Bey, the protagonist of the Turkish writer Burhan Sonmez’s short, provocative novel “Labyrinth.” The question, posed time and time again, has serious implications for him and for us.

We first meet Boratin, a resident of Istanbul in his late 20s, at a pivotal and bewildering moment: He has just returned home after a week in the hospital following a suicide attempt. (He jumped from a bridge into the Bosphorus.) While his body emerged miraculously intact except for a broken rib, his mind was knocked off course. He has no memory of who he is or why he wanted to kill himself.

“For now you own things that you can’t explain, things that will take shape over time,” his doctor says, cheerfully predicting that all will be well in the end. “Whatever your past story may be, perhaps what you wanted was to get away from some aspect of this world.”

The tension in this occasionally profound and sometimes maddening book arises from whether Boratin will get his memory back, and whether we’ll figure out what really makes him who he is — and whether such seemingly profound questions even matter. His amnesia is partial, and specific: He can’t remember anything about his life or his past, but he knows how to use words, how to navigate daily existence, how to be a person in the world.

He also remembers historical facts, though he cannot place them in the correct context or chronology, so that recent events can have the same weight to him as the distant past.

“My mind, which hasn’t got a single word about myself in it, is bursting with facts about other things,” he says. “The names of ancient philosophers, the colors of soccer teams, the words of the first astronaut who went to the moon.” And yet none of this helps him solve the mystery of himself.

It is clear who he is; there’s an ID card in his wallet, and his friends identify him as a charismatic, popular, handsome, hugely talented blues musician. He doesn’t seem to have any enemies. He has been a thoughtful, helpful friend to many, even if he has apparently neglected his sister and nephew for the last few years. Learning this information leaves him cold, as if it has no bearing on the reality of his existence.

Liberated from the burdens of his history, Boratin spends his time brooding at home or wandering around Istanbul, encountering strangers (and occasionally friends) and musing on the nature of the self. Some of the questions he asks lead to profound musings into what makes us human; others reminded me of the never-ending conversational black holes my brother and I used to fall into late at night when we were children.

The questions flow out from the pages and echo our own. What makes us who we are? If we cannot remember our past does it still belong to us, and are we culpable for the things we have done? How do our personal histories intersect with the histories of our cities, our countries, our societies? When our friends see us — in the case of Boratin, these include his fellow band members, who try valiantly to support him and prod his memory — are they seeing the same person they have always seen, or someone else entirely? Can a person without a past have a meaningful present and a hopeful future?

These thought experiments might arrive in real life as we wonder about how it would be to reinvent ourselves without reference to what has come before. Or when we grapple with the fragility of the mind.

If I were to imagine “Labyrinth” as a movie, I would want it to be a kind of psychological suspense story, something akin to “Memento,” in which the memory-robbed protagonist becomes the indefatigable detective of his own story.

But that isn’t this story. For one thing, Boratin is a mostly passive character, a listless existential hero who often drifts through his days with an alienation befitting a Camus protagonist. The book, beautifully translated by Umit Hussein, reads like a fever dream, to one side of reality. Facts come and go, creating an impression but not adding up to anything you can wrap your arms around.

Conversations flow into one another in long paragraphs devoid of quotation marks and even punctuation to differentiate one speaker from another. The narration segues without warning between the first and the third person, with Boratin becoming first the subject and then the object of scrutiny.

It’s silly to criticize the behavior of a fictional character, in the same way it’s silly to criticize an author for writing a book different from the one you yourself might have written. But as I read “Labyrinth,” I wanted to shake Boratin out of his stupor, to demand that he try to engage more with the effort to recover his life.

Boratin, wracked with uncertainty about everything except the basic existence of his body, becomes obsessed with his own reflection in the mirror. (Lest we miss the deeper meaning, Sonmez has deployed an epigraph from Borges, whose “Labyrinths” is the inspiration for the book’s title: “It only takes two facing mirrors / To construct a labyrinth.”)

“I look without blinking,” Boratin says. “The image in the mirror doesn’t blink either. I wait to see which of us will grow tired and give in. Whoever blinks first is me. When I stand in front of a mirror for a long time I get confused about which side I’m on.”

It’s hard to choose a side. It’s hard to know. We’re confused, too, and uneasy, and haunted. But we’re meant to be.

by Sarah Moore, Asymptote Journal

In this exploration of the passage of time, Sönmez is at his most philosophical and his most political.

To live, to remember, and to forget—these are the mainstays of nearly every narrative both real and imagined, and this month, we have selected Burhan Sönmez’s masterful novel, Labyrinth, which traverses these themes with a lucidly Borgesian, yet stirringly original hand. A highly anticipated publication in Sönmez’s award-winning body of work, this profound book navigates the psychogeography of Istanbul to interrogate that most mysterious creature: the self.

Boratin Bey knows that his name is Boratin, that he lives in Istanbul, that he is a blues musician with a tattoo on his back, but he doesn’t know why. And, more urgently, he doesn’t know why he jumped from Bosphorus Bridge—a fall he survived but which has now caused total memory loss. At the beginning of Burhan Sönmez’s Labyrinth (deftly translated by Ümit Hussein), Boratin wakes, disorientated in his unfamiliar apartment with no knowledge of who he is. Luckily, he has a few anchors that can guide him through his now estranged surroundings. Firstly, his bandmate, Bek, who takes care of practical matters, informs him of his likes, dislikes, habits and tries to settle him back into his old rhythm. His sister helps as well, taking great joy in remembering the past and recounting tales of his childhood to Boratin over the phone.

His experience of the world may only just be commencing, but it doesn’t take long before the big philosophical questions start to appear. “Did I choose and buy the furniture in this house?” and “Have I always lived alone?” are suddenly supplanted by “What does beautiful mean?” and “What brings on the desire to die?” A change that is, of course, understandable as Boratin is suddenly forced to step into his own life through the eyes of a complete stranger to it.

Sönmez’s most recent novel, highly anticipated after the publication of Istanbul Istanbul (2015), is a vertiginous exploration of identity, memory, and history, and translator Hussein’s English prose is both dreamlike and profound. The early shift in narrative form from the first person to the third introduces a masterful weaving of perspective, voice, and time. It is no surprise that the two epigraphs to the book relate to Borges; the pervasion of clocks, mirrors, dreams, libraries, and mythology (not to mention the title!) are a clear homage to the Argentine writer. Without his memory, Boratin’s knowledge of the world is not always bound by physical laws, and as his identity continually slips away from him like a mirage, so too does reality swim and refract: “Can the opposite of dark be sound?” he asks at one point, allowing the reader to experience Istanbul and its inhabitants through this synaesthesia.

The novel begins with the ringing of an alarm clock and before long, Boratin has set out to purchase a new clock from a watch seller. Within each of Boratin’s fresh encounters with the inhabitants of the city, Sönmez embeds layers of different narratives. From the watch seller, we hear anecdotes of his grandfather who claimed that the three greatest human inventions were the clock, the mirror, and . . . well, he (fittingly!) can’t recall the final invention. From the grocer, we hear the tale of a young man and an old man who must help a woman to cross a river. The young man carries her across on his back whilst the older man disapproves of this: “customs state that touching a woman is forbidden.” The whole narrative is woven together with such moral fables, as traditional wisdom and knowledge are passed on through storytelling.

Yet, as in the clash between the old and the young man, this is a novel where tradition and novelty collide. Boratin exists as two people: the person who existed prior to his fall, whom the city and those around him are familiar with, and the person who survived the fall without his memory, who must decide between rediscovering and recreating himself. “New books are cheap, old ones expensive. In life, too, old time is more important. It’s yesterday that’s valuable, not today, and the day before that even more so.” In this exploration of the passage of time, Sönmez is at his most philosophical and his most political. Recurrently throughout the novel, the value of remembering the past is challenged: “Boratin, you have freed yourself of your past, losing your memory has set you free,” one character says to him, while another patient in the hospital ponders to him that: “maybe you are unfortunate to still be alive and fortunate to have lost your memory.” Boratin is afraid of his past, afraid of what he might discover if it all one day comes flooding back to him.

Yet Sönmez makes a clear distinction between the past and history. Boratin can still recall many landmark events—the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the crucifixion of Jesus—but he cannot place them within a clear historical time frame. Similarly, he can recognise landmarks in Istanbul but has no indication of their relevance or history. It is only in their immediate impact upon him in the present that history comes to life once again. He is fixated by a small statue in his apartment of the pietà, and is moved deeply by the simultaneous sorrow and tranquility on Mary’s face. That he had never shown any regard for it prior to his fall becomes irrelevant—his recognition of human suffering and its impact on him in the present has made its history relevant and alive once again.

The novel’s setting, Istanbul, is also integral to the exploration of such themes. It is a city where ancient and modern, East and West, the religious and the secular coexist, and from Boratin’s apartment we witness such variety: views over Galata tower, the rooftops of Topkapı Palace, Beyazıt Tower, Balat Hill and, on the other side, concrete walls, “cats and dogs instead of birds,” and piles of rubbish. Many important scenes take place at the border between Asia and Europe—Boratin jumped from Bosphorus bridge whilst crossing over to the European side, and the novel ends at the abandoned Haydarpasa railway station at the beginning of Anatolia. Sönmez, who was born in a Kurdish village in Turkey before moving to Istanbul, and who now divides his time between Cambridge and Istanbul, reveals the importance of place, specifically through these meeting points, areas of encounter and possibility.   

One final meeting point integral to the novel is between the body and the mind. As Boratin says: “Memory loss doesn’t count as bodily injury.” Yet a question that hounds him is what caused him to throw himself from Bosphorus bridge. “What can be worth dying for? Was there anything that valuable in my life?” As he searches for clues, and as nobody can remember any cause or indication behind Boratin’s jumping, we are asked to question how well we can ever know anyone. How much is physical recognition ever worth, and to what extent can it truly define us? 

Sarah Moore is a bookseller and editor from Cambridge, UK. She currently lives in Paris and is an Assistant Blog Editor for Asymptote. 

The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, we speak to Burhan Sönmez.

Sönmez will be participating in the events Literary Quest: Westbeth Edition on April 28, and Ninety Minutes, Three Minds on April 29 at the PEN World Voices Festival.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
By the time I decided to write a novel, I felt that it had already begun to form my sense of identity. Before becoming a writer, I was a human rights lawyer. Everything changed during this time in my life. Sudden physical problems, caused by an assault from the Turkish security forces, carried me to the brink of death. Luckily, I survived, but I was confined to a bed for months. The only thing I could do was watch TV and write notes about anything I could imagine. Some time later, I noticed that these notes were the branches of long, entangled stories. I realized that I must write, just write. Since then, I have believed in writing more than anything else and in the good things that can come out of bad incidents.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
The work of Dostoyevsky and Marquez. Since they are no longer in this world, they cannot knock on my door in the middle of a dark night and tell me off for eating their bread. Or can they?

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
In the beginning, I dreamed of being a poet, believing that poetry is the most superior of all arts. But I happened to turn my hand to fiction and became a novelist. We may think we leave our obsessions behind, but our obsessions don’t leave us. Lately, I’ve noticed that I’ve been keeping my dream alive by putting poems in every novel I write.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
Writing about certain delicate issues still seems daring. Once, I got involved with a written statement criticizing the military forces for murdering people and mutilating their bodies in Kurdish cities in Turkey. Apparently, the Court found our words so daring that it sentenced us to six months in prison. Luckily, it was a suspended sentence.

When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
As people get more and more scared under conditions of poverty, war, emigration, and authoritarian regimes, I cannot think of any reason for accepting any kind of censorship. We don’t have to think of limiting our freedom. Instead, we need to find ways to cross the borderlines of restrictions and, when it happens, be ready to pay the price for it. Words are not up for negotiation. We have known that since the time of Socrates.

What is the responsibility of the writer?
The writer’s only responsibility is to listen to his or her inner voice. He or she should not listen to any other voice except the voices of those who are in emotional or physical pain.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
In a world of fragmentation and alienation, writers still wish to create an intact world of their own. It is an illusion and, of course, a promise. Writers write about illusions and promises by refusing and, paradoxically, reproducing them. As long as there is human suffering, there will always be a desire for collective purpose. Writers will have a common purpose, even if it takes on different forms depending on the time and place.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
Yes. Being arrested is not unusual in some parts of the world—moreover, people are being tortured and killed extensively. Instead of speaking about myself, I prefer to speak about those people. When I speak about them, I am speaking about myself at the same time.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
King Lear by Shakespeare would be a good choice. The leader might be able to learn what it is like to be disgraced and shed tears. Another option would be The Divine Comedy by Dante, but it is so long that such a leader wouldn’t finish it.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Observation is a desire to see something beautiful or good, while surveillance represents the desire to find something dreadful and stigmatize it. Writers believe in observation, while governments trust in surveillance. And we writers observe everything, including governments, while goverments keep us under surveillance.

by Burhan Sönmez, The Guardian, 11 November 2016

All Turkish authors are destined to write about Istanbul, sooner or later. While doing this very thing, author Sönmez examines the changing face of Turkey’s biggest city.

I was 17 years old when I arrived at Haydar Pasha Station in Istanbul. I got off the train and walked down the marble steps where the Station met the sea. Instead of admiring the Station’s magnificent facade, I stared at the old city across the Bosphorus. I saw Istanbul for the first time then.

I had taken the Blue Train the night before at 11pm and reached the last stop at eight in the morning. Haydar Pasha Station was the end of the railway line on the Asian continent. There began the sea, then Europe. I came to Istanbul to study law but I was more excited with the city itself than studying at the university. It was a warm day. I could see historical buildings through a thin fog: the city walls, the roofs of Topkapi Palace, the dome of Hagia Sophia Church and the minarets of the Blue Mosque.

Whenever I recall that moment, I think of what Herman Melville wrote about his visit to Istanbul in 1856. It was a few years after the publication of Moby-Dick. He was an unsuccessful writer despite his great books and was still floating from one sea to another. He wrote in his diary:

“The fog lifted from about the skirts of the city. It was a coy disclosure, a kind of coquetting, leaving room for the imagination and heightening the scene.”

I sensed on the first day that Istanbul would always embrace me with a light curtain of fog. Any time I would return to Haydar Pasha after school holidays, I would meet Istanbul through that curtain. As the years roll on I now realise that my past has become more distant, the fog of my old days are denser, and the Station’s vivid times are vague.

There are some cities you don’t need to see in order to fall in love with. Istanbul is one of them.

Haydar Pasha Station was designed as the beginning point of a railway line towards Asia-minor and improved to accommodate the northern terminus of the Baghdad Railway line in 1904. Because of increased traffic, a larger building was needed, and two German architects, Otto Ritter and Helmut Conu, were appointed to carry out the job. They chose a neo-classical style to build the new station. The origin of the Station’s name is not certain but it is assumed that it was given in honour of a high ranking Ottoman officer, Haydar Pasha, who had served to the Sultan Selim III.

It is rather a gate opening to a great city than a mere station. As you come out of it you see a few steps going down to the pier where a ferry takes you to the city. It is the spot where Istanbul and the rest of the country unite. Trains carry people from small towns in the provinces to that picturesque spot by the Bosphorus.

The poetry book of Human Landscapes From My Country by Nazım Hikmet begins there, in front of the Station:

“Haydar Pasha Station,
spring 1941,
3 p.m.
On the steps, sun
and confusion.
A man
stops on the steps,
thinking about something.

It is not a coincidence that Nazım Hikmet picked Haydar Pasha Station for the opening of his grand book. It is a kind of verse-novel: 17,000 lines describing different people, through whom a whole picture of a country can be seen. Hikmet (1902–1963) is regarded as the greatest poet of modern Turkish literature. He began to write Human Landscapes during the Second World War, while in prison, serving a twenty-eight-year sentence for his communist beliefs. He gave the stories of the people on the train — in its cars, its restaurant, in the locomotive — and talked about their past and their dreams. He used his pen in a cinematographic way and presented the collective memory of a nation, alongside its fears and hopes, in an epic style.

If you are an author in Turkey you are destined to write about Istanbul sooner or later. I have come to that point in my third novel, Istanbul Istanbul. When I was working on it, my mother — my lifelong advisor — asked me what I was writing about. “About Istanbul,” I said. There was a pause on the other end of the telephone line. “The train station,” she said with a tender and confident voice, “you should not forget to mention the train station.” I scanned my mind to recollect what I had been covering in my novel. Writing about Istanbul required plenty of work. I had done my research, taken notes down and formed stories. But on hearing my mother’s words, I realised that I didn’t have a story taking place around Haydar Pasha Station. She, an illiterate Kurdish woman from rural Anatolia, opened a crack in my mind, as she had always done with her fairytales when I was a little child. She had fed me not only with milk but also with stories about rascal jinnies, faraway seas and invisible cities. And now she once again blew her breath into my chest and led me to put some ornaments of her mind into my novel. In Istanbul Istanbul there are some pages, like the opening story of chapter nine, written and designed in line with her wish. It is a story that takes place on the steps of Haydar Pasha Station, where helpless lovers fall in despair and at the same time find a glimpse of light. They are the same steps where Hikmet’s Human Landscapes began.

There are some cities you don’t need to see in order to fall in love with. Istanbul is one of them. I had fallen for her before I arrived at Haydar Pasha Station. I knew her through stories, novels, paintings and songs. But meeting her was not easy for a boy of 17, like me. The speed, the enormity, the finely tuned chaos of the city was a world away from where I grew up, a small town in the middle of the plains. And the times were not easy for the people of Turkey either. There had been a military coup a couple of years before, in 1980. A heavy atmosphere was hanging over the city. Curfews, prohibitions, tortures, and book burnings were part of daily life. But despite all this, we had dreams in our hearts. We had an imagination of another way of life. We knew Istanbul was not a calm city to live in. The cost of living was high, and there were unemployment, traffic, crime, and intolerance. But it has always left room for the imagination as Herman Melville wrote: “The fog lifted… leaving room for the imagination.”

In France they say, “All poets are born in the countryside but die in Paris.” Istanbul has the same essence. Our poets and writers pen shady lines or lively scenes and indicate through them where they should be buried. Some acknowledge Istanbul as the junction of historical geographies, the meeting point of East and West. Some see it as a land of desire and mysticism and relate it to past eras. The Turkish poet Yahya Kemal, the short-story writer Sait Faik, and the novelists Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar and Orhan Pamuk have approached Istanbul from different perspectives. Each of them has created his own city, unlike the others in its literature.

In Istanbul Istanbul, I wanted to portray the city as the unification point of time and space and the melting pot of opposing tendencies in life. I preferred not to talk about past golden ages. That approach has already been used up in our literature. In my novel, space and time converge on a prison cell three floors underground. When you are underground there is only one direction that matters: upwards, toward the sky. Time moves differently underground. On the surface, time is linear — past and future eclipse all else, and what matters is less where are you than where you’re going. Underground, past and future mean nothing. There is only the eternal, often agonising, now. By focusing my novel on prisoners in a subterranean cell, discussing the city above, I wanted to unite time and space, hope and hopelessness, darkness and brightness. They are all together and one. Istanbul is the name of that wholeness. Wherever you were born, you come to Istanbul to be part of its wholeness.

And now the word ‘beauty’ is not only an aesthetic word but a political word, too.

Istanbul is too real and at the same time too ambiguous. It makes possible both good and bad. When I was in one of those interrogation cells I felt the underground was the place for evil, while aboveground seemed to be the place for good. But instead of writing about good and evil, I wanted to explore the shades between them and to show how they exchange places.

Istanbul as a metropolis is not only the heart of this country but also the future of it. The beautiful and the ugly in Istanbul reflect the future of our people. That’s why it is now also the heart of our politics.

The Conservative bodies believe in the past. They think the best days are behind us. With passed utopias before their eyes, they don’t hesitate to ruin the present. They are wiping out the city’s green areas and constructing tall buildings. They call it progress. That’s why people feel obliged to defend this city against greediness. And now the word ‘beauty’ is not only an aesthetic word but a political word, too. When people call for beauty in Istanbul, the responses they get are police, tear-gas and the rise of construction firms in the stock market.

In the tales of my childhood there was always a place for heroes to suffer and then emancipate. Istanbul is now the place of both suffering and emancipation in our contemporary writing. We write about Istanbul with the hope that its beauty will shape our future.

After having witnessed two world wars, the invasion of the British army and the exile of Armenian intellectuals, the Haydar Pasha Station met its latest disaster on 28 November 2010, when a fire began on top of the roof. The fire was stopped before it was too late, but following the fire the station was closed down.

It was a suspicious fire. It came about the same time as legal debates were being held regarding Haydar Pasha Station and its surroundings. The government wanted a new development in the area, turning Haydar Pasha’s castle-like building into a fancy hotel. But the public opposed it and the legislative charter for the development was suspended by the court. Various international institutions, like the New York-based World Monument Fund, have added Haydar Pasha to their agenda, emphasising the uncertain future of the railway.

Local authorities promised to renew railway lines and resume train journeys again by the end of 2015. But not a single rail line has been renewed so far, nor has there been any sign of reopening the Station. Istanbul dwellers are aware that Haydar Pasha might be another victim of urban gentrification. That’s why they have formed a new civic organization under the name “Haydar Pasha Solidarity” and launched an effort to save the Station, organizing concerts, exhibitions, and demonstrations. They also read out some lines from Human Landscapes, where Nazım Hikmet, many years ago, pointed out the merciless face of urban gentrification, which tears apart past and present:

“Concrete villas.
Lined up all the way to Pendik.
The trees are mere saplings,
the grapevines just greening.
The 3:45 train goes screaming past.
Concrete villas.
The Secretary Pasha’s summer house,
a forty-room marvel,
has been torn down.
Now it’s concrete villas,
concrete villas
all the way to Pendik.” 

For a novelist to bring to life and define the city he-or-she loves is nowadays a banal occurrence. From Elena Ferrante’s Naples to Zadie Smith’s London, and counting Lawrence Durrell’s inimitable Alexandria—”the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets”—it’s been a positively raging trend, at least ever since a certain Irishman decided to transpose an ancient Greek epic to his native Dublin. Bless him.

As its title suggests, Burhan Sönmez’s third novel Istanbul Istanbul follows a similar idea, albeit with a noticeable difference: Unlike, say, in NW or Justine, the book’s characters do not get to live, love, and intrigue from within their city—they are prisoners of conscience stuck in a cell three levels under it. Demirtay the student, Kamo the barber, uncle Küheylan, and the doctor pass their time telling each other stories, posing riddles, and reminiscing about their Istanbul in the long dull moments between torture sessions. The city that emerges isn’t wholly real, but a blend of myth and mundanity set to a background of raw political violence.

When I mention to Sönmez the apparent oddity of using darkness and pessimism to conjure up the Istanbul he loves, he explains that he wanted to capture the contradictions animating it. We meet in a café in central London, where soft-spoken and wrapped in the Left Bank intellectual’s winter uniform (read: long gray trenchcoat and thick scarf) he describes what he calls “the schism of Istanbul”: the fact that on the one hand “Istanbulites always complain about life there—they say ‘oh traffic is bad, and the prices only go up’—and usually aren’t happy,” and on the other they “admire the city, they say it’s wonderful, and talk about it with nostalgia and the desire to return to olden, golden days.” His book therefore attempts to depict this combination; it is set “three floors underground, in an interrogation cell where people are in pain, but they have the dream and the idea of the Istanbul aboveground. They are always talking about it in a beautiful way.”

Reminding me of something Edward Said once wrote about his beloved Cairo (“it is at least as historically rich as Athens or Rome, but you never get the sense of history carefully preserved”), Sönmez makes notably few references to the capital’s real history. Its presence is only hinted at via tales adapted from other works, and taken from the Decameron to Moby Dick. Unlike with Said’s Cairo, however, that isn’t because of the city itself. Rather, it is as a remedy to what he sees as a certain failure of the “literature of Istanbul”—that “it divided the city into two different parts. The Istanbul of the past which was glorious, beautiful, and the Istanbul of the present, a megapolis of modernism which is very ugly and hard-working [sic]. But that’s an illusion.”

“I wanted to unite those times in the novel,” he tells me, “if you are underground, you don’t have the usual directions—east or west, south or north—you only have one, upwards. Time itself doesn’t move forward or back, it moves upwards, too, from underground to overground, or vice versa. So, by changing the direction of time I managed to unite, in a single cell, the whole time of the past into today… in the pain that’s suffered by people today.”

One cannot escape politics when writing about modern Turkey, especially considering recent events, and while Sönmez does populate his work with political prisoners he remains staunchly against mentioning its issues directly—“I didn’t want to be didactic, to teach people and to show them the right direction of the future.” He later clarifies: “When I began to write the novel, everybody around me thought it was going to be a political history of Turkey. Of course, once they read the book they realized it didn’t have any actual political discussion, or information about torture (apart from a couple of minor exceptions). I pretended, in the opening, to write a political book, but when the readers get in, they suddenly find themselves seeing that no, it’s not about politics, it’s about love, laughter, pain, hope, dreams… you know, everything.”

This is a work more concerned with capturing the feel of the thing rather than simply relaying a few ideological points—it is also, in that sense, a lot more personal. Sönmez is of Kurdish origin and worked for a time as a human rights lawyer, that is until he was taken by the police from a non-violent demonstration in Istanbul in 1996, beaten, and left to die. When I hint at the possibility of Istanbul Istanbul being informed by experience, he is quick to disagree: “I put a lot of my arrest in it, but it’s not something individual. In Turkey, being arrested, being tortured is a social event. Just to give you some numbers: when I was a teenager there was a military coup [in 1980], the official figures say that in the first two years 500,000 were arrested and tortured. Can you imagine? Half a million people… mostly youngsters, trade unionists, intellectuals. And now look at the current situation: since the 15 July coup attempt, more than 30,000 people have been arrested. In Turkey, in every family, in every corner, you can come across someone being detained, tortured… so when you are talking about that kind of detention, it’s not a personal story anymore, it’s just a common theme.”

In that regard the title to Turkish writer and journalist Ece Temelkuran’s recent non-fiction work, The Insane and the Melancholy, would appear to fit this novel as well. Yet there is more to it than that. If humor makes a few distinguished appearances from within the stories prisoners share with one another, it is beauty the reader is most likely to find central to Istanbul Istanbul—coming from the evoked city, as a sublimation of the inmates’ experiences, and in random little moments. Sönmez is interested in “giving a sensation of the beauty of politics and individuals in the shade of the city”… it is, it seems, what gives his world unity.

Good was moralistic. Right was calculating. Whereas beauty was infinite. Beauty was in a word, a face, in the carvings on a wall soaked by rain. It was in someone’s daydreams in the absence of an image, and in an unknown meaning.

“When we talk about beauty, we can apply it everywhere in the world,” he says, “beauty is not a noticeable aesthetic term anymore, it’s also a political term. When we defended, saved Taksim Gezi Park from being turned into a shopping mall it wasn’t just saving the beautiful part of the city, it was also a political act. Nowadays you cannot separate those kinds of terms, the beauty, the rightness, the fairness, the good and bad things… everything is now in the same pot.”

When questioned as to whether this muddle is indeed a welcome development, Sönmez, offers an unexpected show of hopefulness: “It gives an opportunity to remind us that mankind, society, is a totality. In the last few centuries, the Western capitalist system always told us that we needed division—you just do your own job and do not get involved with other things. That was wrong. Man is a total being. We can be a simple thing on the street, yet at the same time imagine a star in our mind, a galaxy, beauty… So why separate different parts of this existence?”

In the end, Sönmez unites all those disparate strands (politics and beauty, a city underground and aboveground, past and present) to portray a more complete Istanbul, one free—counterintuitively, perhaps—of illusions. “We are not individuals of the past, we are individuals of today. If people would like to have a good future then they should fight for it. That’s why the end of the book gives different possibilities to the reader. And people ask: ‘which option is more possible?’ It depends on who’s reading… whatever you do in the city, then you will change your own fate, your own destiny, but also the destiny of other people who live in the same city with you.”

Simon Leser
The Culture Trip, London

Turkish human rights activist, journalist and novelist Burhan Sönmez has been tortured by the police, but stays committed to freedom of expression. He tells DW why he is hopeful for his country after the attempted coup.

Were you surprised by the attempted coup in Turkey?
I was very surprised and I believe the majority of society was surprised with this coup attempt, because the army and the government had been getting along very well with each other on almost every issue. No one expected this.

So how do you explain it suddenly happening then?
That’s the nature of Turkey. There is no stability in politics and in social life, so you can expect anything to happen at any time in society with the army and the government. This unexpected occurrence is just a result of it.

How are you reacting to the aftermath of the events?
What’s worrying is that two evil forces collided with each other last Friday. By evil force, I mean that both parties are bad. One of them is the army, the coup plotters, and the other side is the government, which is not good at applying democratic politics either. The collision of these two forces will not bring democracy to Turkey – so we are very worried.

Now, we have saved the parliamentary system, but that doesn’t mean we have saved the democratic system, because Erdogan is using this to escalate his politics, his personal ambition and his pro-Islam regime. That is worrying for us.

There’s an increasing polarization in the country. Do you think this could lead to civil war?
I don’t think so, because the democratic opposition is not on the streets. They don’t like to fight with these people. Last time we took to the streets all together, three years ago, during the Gezi Park protests, we were very peaceful. Even though the police and the army killed more than 10 people and 10,000 protesters were harmed, we stayed very peaceful.

Who are the thousands of people now being arrested after the attempted coup?
Erdogan is using the attempted coup to get rid of the whole opposition because he doesn’t like to be criticized. Within one day, 10,000 people were arrested; 2,745 judges and prosecutors were expelled from their position – can you believe that? Were they all part of that coup? No, it’s unbelievable. They’re just using the coup as an excuse. That’s the first step and the second step will come later on.

What would be the second step?
On social media accounts, they are discussing the names of journalists to be arrested, mostly pro-Fethullah Gülen Islam conservative journalists or liberal left-wing journalists. So the next step will target all left-wing critics of the government, left-wing student organizations, and human rights organizations. For now, they are untouched, but they could turn to these institutions next.

As a contributor to the independent left-wing newspaper “BirGün” do you feel threatened personally?
In Turkey, people like me who defend human rights and who are very active in daily politics can be targeted by the government anytime. It could be yesterday or before yesterday or it will be tomorrow or after tomorrow. It’s not good to start thinking or guessing about this when you live in Turkey because it is part of the country, unfortunately. They don’t let you get bored. There is no boredom here! There is always fear and danger – but you get used to it. We keep fighting for our principles.

You are the founder of the social-activist organization TAKSAV, you were a member of the Human Rights Society and you’re also a member of the PEN organization for writers. How will the current developments affect your commitment to freedom of expression and human rights?
I will carry on; I have been talking to the international press these days. People like me should continue to express their democratic values. Our society should not be left to anti-democratic politics.

You have experienced police violence firsthand. Now, just after the coup, more attention is given to the way Erdogan is dealing with his opponents, but the situation has been difficult for many years already. Was there a particular moment when you realized that things were becoming more threatening for freedom of expression in the country?
It is a slow-motion change. For years and years, social media platforms like Twitter have been blocked every now and then. Yesterday, 10 news websites were blocked. They were not even affiliated with Fethullah Gülen. They were left-wing or social democratic news sites. This censorship is not something that will stop at a certain point. It will carry on for years and years. But we will carry on in favor of freedom of speech and democracy.

Your 2015 novel “Istanbul, Istanbul” is about prisoners who try to find relief from the pain of torture through storytelling. Can storytelling inspire us for the future of Turkey?
In that novel, you can see that people are in pain, but they keep their faith in the future, they still have their dreams.

People like me, we’ve believed in this country for years and years. If you ask me if I’ve had a good year in this country, I will tell you, no. Every year has been worse than the previous one. But that means that our hopes are getting bigger than the previous year – otherwise you cannot survive here.

I will tell you something very unrealistic: I am very hopeful for the future of my country, otherwise I would have left. I’m still here; people like me are still standing here. We will carry on our calls for freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance and also peace. We need these more than ever before. 

In spite of the fact that it is set entirely in a Turkish prison – no one’s favourite place – this is an uplifting book. The writing and translation are outstanding, as is its insight into humanity and inhumanity. Looking into the eyes of Burhan Sönmez, when I interviewed him on stage for ELN, as he described his own torture and suffering, I briefly descended into his personal hell but ascended again on the wings of his remarkable compassion. Four prisoners share an underground prison in a torture centre. When they are not being tortured (which we do not witness), they tell one another stories about the city of Istanbul, above ground. These stories enable them to survive and remain human. As Sönmez explains,

“There are two Istanbuls, one below ground and one above. Yet in reality both are one and the same. This is the main point.”

Ten days, ten stories and ten chapters, like Boccaccio’s Decameron. Classical in structure and profoundly moving, this novel will, I predict, itself become a classic.

A brief synopsis of Istanbul Istanbul, Turkish writer Burhan Sönmez’s third novel, suggests a book about claustrophobia, terror and pain. Four men are confined in a windowless cell in a prison they believe is located somewhere below the streets of contemporary Istanbul. Periodically they are removed from the cell to be tortured, returning battered half to death, to be cared for by their cellmates. Outside of the cell, the only other scenes are the corridor with its iron gate through which the inmates pass on their way to their regular torments; and the view of the cell opposite, which houses a young woman, who is tortured with equal severity.

Istanbul Istanbul, however, is also full of light, colour, joy and freedom. This is because the four men spend their time telling each other – and themselves – stories. Tales which pluck them from the confines of their dungeon, from the implication that only death awaits them, and from the immediacy of torture. The result is a deeply moving study of the relationship between pain and the human imagination.

The novel is divided into ten chapters – each representing a day in the cell, each narrated by one of the inmates and each chapter beginning with that inmate’s story for the day. This might be a fairy tale – featuring wolves, or a princess escaped from a harem; or it could be a bawdy tale about nuns. Or it could be something contemporary, discussing the comings and goings of the world in the Istanbul above the prisoners’ heads.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Sönmez has chosen as his loose model Boccaccio’s Decameron. Both the model and this looseness are acknowledged by the Doctor, who describes, with questionable accuracy, the structure of Boccaccio’s medieval story-cycle. Where the Doctor is correct, however, is in his characterization of the motivation of Boccaccio’s storytellers: “If the route to escaping death was to flee the city, the route to passing time was to converse.”

Storytelling is also the escape route from death for the four inmates. And just as the tales in theDecameron in no way touch on the Black Death with which Florence is afflicted, so none of the stories the inmates tell each other discuss the reasons they have been imprisoned. In fact, when one of them, Kalo the Barber, seems to be straying into revelatory territory, he is quickly brought back into an imaginative, rather than a confessional space.

Where Istanbul Istanbul differs from the Decameron, though, is in its modernism – its concern with subjectivity. Boccaccio’s narrators are simply voices, while Sönmez’s have individual consciousness. Each of the inmates not only tells stories to his companions, he discusses with himself in vivid colours his journey to the prison, and describes to himself, with equal intensity, his experience of being there.

These detailed imaginings take the inmates outside of the cell walls as effectively as the stories they tell each other, and it is through them that we discover the consequence of fighting against an authoritarian regime. That consequence is pain.

Sönmez’s characters deal with this pain not by questioning the political motivations of their torturers but through further acts of imagination. Similarly, rather than directly addressing any specific political and social situation, Sönmez focusses on the nature of pain, and how it affects human creativity, cognition and self-knowledge.

Scratched on the cell wall are the words “Why pain?” An explanation is offered: “the way to hide the pain aboveground was by creating pain underground … That was the only way Istanbul could stay on its feet.”

Yet cellmate Uncle Küheylan asks “Whose was this body that was submitting to pain, and how much more could it take?” He also describes how he “tried to get to know […himself…] in the throes of pain.”

Thus the departures that the imagination allows – to the Istanbul aboveground – are inextricable from the immediate experience of the self and of pain in the underground Istanbul. Which of these two Istanbuls is real and which imaginary is the central question of the book. The title itself should perhaps have a question mark – Istanbul Istanbul?

Sönmez, with the wisdom of the fiction writer, does not answer this question. Instead, just as the gambolling and feasting of Boccaccio’s Florentines appear more real than the stories they tell each other, so the intricately designed feast that Sönmez’s inmates anticipate they will share on their release becomes the central reality of the book. The feast – product of pain and imagination – would satisfy the most starved stomach. The book, product of the same, is similarly fulfilling.

West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. 

J. Bruce Allen, The Guide Istanbul, 17 May 2016

Burhan Sönmez’s third novel presents a theme that is all too familiar to intellectuals in Turkey: political imprisonment. For almost a century, the country has seen the sufferings of cultural icons such as Nazım Hikmet, Orhan Kemal, and Yılmaz Güney. It is a topic that touches on Sönmez’s own past – he received medical help from the British charity Freedom from Torture after experiencing police violence in Turkey. But where others might write a novel of utter bleakness, in Istanbul Istanbul Sönmez turns an underground cell into a prism of memory, imagination, and storytelling.

“Some friends of mine couldn’t finish this book”
“In the history of literature, some people claim that you can write nothing but your own experience. I can say the same thing for myself,” Sönmez told The Guide Istanbul. “I collect things from my life, and then I reshape them or use them as a cement between the bricks in my mind. The story in Istanbul Istanbul is partly my experience, but more importantly it’s the experience of people in this society.” Sönmez’s first serious start at writing a novel began during his medical treatment in the UK. Quoting crucial Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, he says, “Writing is treatment for the brain.”

As Sönmez admits, “Some friends of mine couldn’t finish this book because they lived the same thing. For most of these people, their stories didn’t have a happy ending.” The product of ten years of planning, the novel draws on news reports and stories that Sönmez has heard either second-hand or directly. Some of the prisoners in the novel are imprisoned for their political activism, while others are victims of chance and circumstance. “Once I heard a story about someone like the doctor in the novel. The police came to the door and asked for a certain person who lived there,” says Sönmez. “The man said, ‘That’s me.’ Actually it was his son, but he lied to protect him. They took him and tortured him for months in Istanbul. I heard this many years ago and always wanted to write about it.”

“There is a dilemma in this book”
Sönmez’s novel also draws on the fourteenth-century frame narrative of The Decameron. In this early Italian epic, city dwellers escape the Black Death to tell stories for ten days in a country villa. The prisoners in Istanbul Istanbul also tell their tales over ten days, but rather than escaping the plague they are tortured horrifically by the police. “There is a dilemma in this book,” says Sönmez. “The beginning is very hard, it is torture and suffering. But I use this as a tool to enter the garden of Istanbul. This city is made of pieces like the Bosphorus, classical Turkish music, fairytales, and books.” The prisoners’ tales range from personal confessions to jokes, fairytales, and Turkified versions of Western classics. More than simply passing the time, these stories are a struggle to make sense of their present agony.

As his own life testifies, Sönmez believes in the liberating power of literature. “When you don’t have a door or a window, you create it yourself. Even writing a novel is creating a new window,” he says. “It’s the same for the characters in my book – they find ways of opening windows even while they’re underground.”

It was Napoleon himself who proclaimed that if the Earth were a single state, Constantinople would be its capital. As far as hyperbolic statements go, this one checks out with historical grandeur. The city the world now knows as Istanbul is that rare metropolis which has been host to a wide spectrum of the complexities of history and human nature. Millennia of conquest, invasions and a multitude of cultural diversity means the chronicled depth and Weltanschauung of the people of the former Ottoman Empire is uniquely ripe for artistic portrayal.

This diverse but distinctive world view is what Burhan Sonmez’s novel, Istanbul Istanbul, attempts to express. Four disparate political captives are held and tortured without trial by unidentified agents in the underbelly of the city. The specific period of the novel is never out rightly stated, though there are various mentions of past persecutions (Mansur Al-Hallaj/Edward Jorris) and an allusion to the late twentieth century Turkish political violence. Over the period of 10 days, a piece of the puzzle of the full picture is provided from the perspective of each of the captives’ stories. And this is where Sonmez’s novel comes to life – not just as a visceral depiction of pain in captivity, or a Frankl-esque exploration of existential despair – but rather, the artisanal interweaving of narratives; the masterful construction of a multi-story tale.

Numerous times within the novel, there are references to a number of classical literary works with one common denominator – they are all variations of mise-en-abymes. From the far Eastern influences of One Thousand & One Nights to the Slavic Crime & Punishment of Dostoyevsky, Sonmez pays homage to several tales told that employ the narrative device. The highest respect, however, is paid to the 14th-century Italian collection of stories, The Decameron. Boccaccio’s novellas seem to have directly influenced Sonmez’s direction in Istanbul Istanbul; with the characters referring to it more than once – even so far as in the number of days Sonmez’s captives’ ordeal advances (“Decameron” means ‘ten days’ in the language of the ancient Istanbul dwellers”, states the character known only as The Doctor.). Istanbul’s metafictional commentary not only acknowledges the parallels to Decameron, but goes a step further and relays why the captives’ tribulations differ from Boccaccio’s runaways.

“But the people in the Decameron are better off than us. They fled the city and escaped death. Whereas we are in the depths of the city, tossed into the darkness…If our Istanbul is the same city as the one in the Decameron, I think each story’s fate flows in a different direction, don’t you agree?”

The different directions of each character’s stories elucidate the whole of Istanbul – from the darkness of the underground cells to the overcast skyline above ground.

From fear and loathing, through sober detachment – right up to hopeful, even religious, credence in the city – each of Sonmez’s characters are elements of Istanbul’s soul. To encapsulate the city wholly is a Herculean task, but Istanbul’s multiplicity is reflective of the fractured psyche of the former Constantinople. Sonmez manages to vilify the beautiful city, while in the same breath mythologizing it.

This duality, which could only have come from a native son, means the pace of Istanbul undulates steadily yet never lets up in its ascent towards the end. The challenge for a novel such as this one can sometimes be in the continuity of the frame story and/or the stories within the story, but Sonmez pushes both along wonderfully – especially as an exposition of the characters’ development.

Where Istanbul slightly falters is in the dialogue between the characters – and how much of each character’s speech becomes monologic. Perhaps this is intentional as they are political prisoners and their convictions are best conveyed through Randian outpourings, however the repetitiveness does not go unnoticed.

Nonetheless, Burhan Sonmez has spun an intriguing (barely fictional) tale about despair, hope and the power of stories – most importantly, the stories we tell each other and ourselves; and how they influence our perception of the world around us – especially when that world is as illustrious as the capital of the former Ottoman Empire.

“It takes three days to become acquainted with a city, but three generations to really know it”. Although the visiting reader never fully grasps the city (what chance does a guest have if even the natives can’t), the inter-generational tales and perspectives means we are acquainted with the essence of the beautiful “fog that enclosed time in Istanbul.”

By Michael Nketsiah
Posted on April 19, 2016 

Maria Eliades (Ploughshares at Emerson College)

Unlike in New York, where managing to live in the city for ten years grants one the status of being a New Yorker, rarely will you meet a person living in Istanbul who will be identified as an İstanbullu. The stakes are much higher. To be an İstanbullu, so says popular consent, one’s family must have managed to survive in the city for three generations. To make it in the city for just a decade will not do.

Burhan Sönmez’s novel, İstanbul İstanbul however, suggests otherwise while also suggesting why no one can lay claim to being of the city. In his multi-narrator, multi-story within story tale, four men stuck in the same jail cell in an undisclosed underground location within the city spend more time with their heads in the city than in the jail itself. Why they are each indeed there is part of the mystery of the novel, but Sönmez alludes to the time being the early 1980s, in which arrest and torture due to political involvement was common following Turkey’s third military coup.

İstanbul İstanbul is less about the inhumane conditions of the prison and more about the city itself, and in that the novel succeeds in trailing narratives that loop into one another, but that someone yet again, lead back to Istanbul. As the character known simply as “the Doctor” says, “All stories become the property of Istanbul in here…”, and so his own personal story on how he ended up in the prison, and even the folk narratives that find their way into the novel are also all about Istanbul.

To capture the city so thoroughly though is a feat in and of itself. Just as with Sönmez’s novel, Istanbul defies being pinned down due to its multitudes. Yet Sönmez indelibly captures parts of the city and its inhabitants’ psyche. He describes the curse of “development” in the city that caused “houses …[to] presume to grow vertically in floors and block out the sky” and “square[s to be]… crushed beneath giant shadows” and how most people in the city loved crowds, as that was where “The beauty of the city lay”. Sönmez simply gets what it means to loathe and love the city, which is one large part of what the novel argues makes one an İstanbullu.

There too is the implicit alienation in living in Istanbul, which is a large part of why no one ever feels they can lay claim to the place. Often in Istanbul, one can feel that one has no place, and as the character Uncle Küleyhan says:

“Istanbul dwellers liked the paintings of Istanbul that they hung on their walls much more than the streets they walked in every day, the rainy rooftops, and the teahouses on the beach. They would drink rakı, recount legends, recite poetry, then they would gaze at the paintings on their walls and sigh. They thought they lived in a different city. … In houses, coffeehouses, and workplaces, Istanbul’s visible face beamed out of the front of the paintings on the walls, while its invisible face remained on the back. Everyone stared at the paintings as though bewitched, and then wended their way sorrowfully to bed. They divided time in two, just as the divided sleep and wakefulness.”

So much of the city lives outside of their surroundings in an ideal setting captured in a print sold in a tourist shop, or as he later says, in a book that tells of the city’s past, rather than the one that one inhabits every day. For so many of us in Istanbul, it is the past that drives our lives and not the present. Küleyhan and his fellow prisoners are like that too, but perhaps more so in that all they have is their past bound up in endless rounds of stories that will get them through the infinity of the jail. There, time is independent of the driving rotation of the sun or alarm clock that tells one another day has begun.

With so many stories, the only disappointment to İstanbul İstanbul is the ambiguity of the ending, which leaves the reader to decide where, if at all, the characters’ stories end. Sönmez’s gift for nestling so many tales together, many more than one would imagine, much like Istanbul, that has one feeling cut off with the last page. Perhaps this was by design, for as with Istanbul, a narrative is endless. Whatever the case, İstanbul İstanbul is an engrossing read.

Many small stories make up a larger one which takes place between Turkey and Cambridge (UK), linking memories and exile. Interview with the Turkish writer Burhan Sönmez

Burhan Sönmez is a young Turkish writer forced for years to live in exile in Cambridge, in England, for political reasons. On his return to his homeland he played an active part in the Taksim Square protests.

His most recent novel, “Sins and Innocents”, links the pain of exile with the memories, myths and legends of his childhood spent on the plain of Haymana, south of Ankara. The first words of the novel put it like this: “My homeland was my childhood”, a phrase any refugee can identify with.

It’s the story of the alter ego of the author, Brani Tawo, who, in a Cambridge bookshop, meets another exile, Feruzeh, a woman from Iran. The two, who eventually fall in love, go through their exile, cultivating their memories and enriching them with their reading and their culture.

The role of the memory is very important in your novel which, in alternating chapters, moves from the present time in Cambridge to recollections of the past, as far as three generations back.

Yes, the novel develops on three levels, all tied to memory. The first is the land of origin the two protagonists came from into exile. The second is their childhood. The third regards life and death, since the protagonist survived a certain violence.

Is that the violence which led to his insomnia?
Yes, the protagonist was attacked by the police… But this is not the issue.

Can you explain?
A Turkish saying has it: “If someone refers too often to the words of Allah, then one should suspect he’s up to no good.” Today we see the government of Erdogan is always speaking of tradition, the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Army, and the country’s great past culture, while in reality it’s working in parallel to destroy the past, wiping out ancient forests, polluting old rivers, covering the land with cement, in the name of extreme industrialism. We interpret it this way: let’s destroy the past to build the future.

Going back to what your grandfather recalls and the war between Greece and Turkey, your book takes a long, highly poetical look at the past, with many literary references.

Poetry is perhaps the most important element, because it is what represents the past, not the present. My country and my childhood are both tied to poetry. One realistic element I inserted into the story is a piece of graffiti I came across in an underpass in Cambridge. An anonymous hand had written: “The art of poetry…”, then someone or something had interrupted that hand. On my way to therapy, I went through that underpass every day, read that truncated line, and thought of how I might complete it. One day someone did complete it and I read: “The art of poetry is dying”. This was an important moment in my life, a symbolic moment. I began to think of this book, for which I had a great many stories and I wanted this to be a story in the story. Literary references have this purpose, to fit into the sequence without intruding.

What do England and Cambridge, where the two protagonists meet, represent? Brani Tawo asks Fenoreh: “If you were buried here, what would this earth be for you?”
The question comes from a quotation from Rupert Brooke, the poet who died and was buried in Greece, in Skyros. I think it’s a question which many exiles ask themselves. Feruzeh answers that when she went back to Iran she had a rose tatooed on her, the rose of the Book of Secrets,  so as to die with that trace of Iran on her body. This is a reference to a tradition from ancient Persia, still widespread in Iran where everyone has his own Book of Secrets. That is the book we each choose as a guide to our life – in the morning you open it at random, read a phrase and this gives you an interpretation of the day to come. A bit like the way the Bible was once used in the west, opening it to read at random.

Which is your personal Book of Secrets?
(Burhan Sönmez, embarassed, blushes). I have a lot, but they are all books of poetry.

In the novel there’s a sentence from Wittgenstein. The protagonist goes to the philosopher’stomb and meets a woman who had discovered her husband deceived her after she read a phrase in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “That the sun will rise tomorrow is a hypothesis; and that means we do not know if it will rise”. Did you choose Wittgenstein because he is buried in Cambridge?

No, in Cambridge there are even too many tombs of famous people. This choice derives from several motives. Philosophy deals with the whole and the single parts. Historically there were those who began from the whole to arrive at the parts, and those who began with the single parts, putting them together to arrive at the whole. Wittgenstein, like Aristotle, believed that the whole was nothing other than that created by the various parts. This means the small parts when put together create the whole, and this is the meaning of my book: in it there are many small stories which, put together, make up a larger story. Wittgenstein’s philosophy was useful to explain the structure of my book.

Does Cambridge represent something else, in a novel which is essentially about Turkey?

Sometimes we look for the best way to tell our story. And sometimes this actually happens talking about something else. Don Quixote is the story of a great knight, an idealist and dreamer, but half the book is about Sancho Panza, a simple man, without dreams, exactly the opposite. Through Sancho Panza, the reader is better able to understand Don Quixote. I wanted to tell the stories from my past, the places of my childhood on the plain of Haymana, and I needed an opposite – Cambridge has this role.

At the end of the interview I stop to talk to Burhan Sönmez, explaining that I’m particularly interested in his book as the son of exiles from Fiume/Rijeka (Croatia), born in a refugee camp. He wishes to hear more about this story, of which he, naturally, knew nothing, asking if any Italians have remained in Istria and Fiume. Yes, a small minority, I answer. Then, in my copy of his book, he writes a dedication in Turkish. The interpreter tells me what it says – a sentence from the chapter with the significant title “Man is the refuge of man”. A hopeful answer for the fate of all exiles.,  4 April 2014

Sky was clear but it was a cold day in Cambridge. We went to see Burhan Sönmez, the author of North (Kuzey), a few days after he had attended a Round Table Discussion on the 2nd of March 10 in London.

During the Discussion, which was organised by the NoS (Network of Students), Sönmez talked about his first novel, North, and also mentioned his new book’s story that takes place in Cambridge. We thought it would be a good idea to visit him during his short stay in Cambridge.

Having lived in the UK nearly ten years, Sönmez moved back to Turkey last year. He wrote the North while he was here, and prior to his book getting published he went to Istanbul. He spent most of his time in Cambridge working on his book.  Maybe it was his destiny, like the characters in his novel, to go to north.

Burhan Sönmez is currently working on his second novel and travels between Cambridge and Istanbul frequently.

During his stay in the UK in March he was invited to lead on discussions at various organisations such as NoS and RenkArt. 

We, four students from different universities in London, met up with Sönmez right opposite of almighty King’s College which is in a picturesque street in Cambridge. We were fortunate enough to be given a tour by Sönmez where he not only took us through the city but also through his feelings, observations and inspirations which has driven him to start his second novel he is currently working on.

He studied law in the University of Istanbul, but he is now in literature. He also writes for various newspapers and magazines on culture, politics and religion. 

His interest in writing, story-telling and modern literature is rooted in the traditional stories and legends he was brought up with. His unique experience of growing up in a remote village with no electricity, and having a talented storyteller for a mother, has provided perspective, inspiration and material for his writing.

We have walked in a street where once Mohammad Iqbal lived and past by the Darwin’s flat. Having walked long enough to desire a coffee break we had a rest in the Eagle the legendry pub of war pilots and DNA discoverers.

As curious students we asked Burhan Sönmez many questions but we could squeeze only a few here.

Some authors refer to their characters as their children, how do you view your creations and how did you come to seeing them this way?

Authors are said to be the mother of their characters. That’s just a saying. You don’t really feel it until you have experienced it as women labour. You create, but your creatures have a freedom, so you cannot shape them as freely as you like. Like children, they come of you but later move on to their own destiny which you can only try to put your intellectual and emotional treasure in them. The writers who hold the all strings in their hand can create puppets but real characters.

In North you describe that if there is forbidden direction in life you have to face it and walk towards it… how does your experience of life fit to the journey to the North?

I was a lawyer in Turkey and never imagined or wished to go abroad and live there. After a particular accident I had to come to north to dig the earth of my life here. As it is said in the story, the north sometimes is a place you have to go, and it sometimes is a path you have to walk. I feel my north is a path and I am still walking.

Can we say that every or some or just one character in fiction is really a part of the author, a reflection of their personality?

Not necessarily. But in most cases the answer will be ‘yes’. The way your characters act, the way they response or feel a situation will carry something from the author. You may not be aware of it. In my novel, the protagonist is not me, but in some parts of the story we shared some feelings as it happened in a chapter named The Black Wolf’s Cave. The character I most felt attached to was Little Sultan.

Opening Page of the North

The last stars of the night were retiring when the shepherds found Aslem’s naked body at the foot of the precipice.

The shepherds, who had woken up early, had been on their way down to the village. The wild grass beneath the hoarfrost softened like snow with each step, a blanket of steam wrapped itself around the herd. They were passing the steep rocks where a thin film of mist was spreading. On windy days it sounded like an old woman abandoned on those treacherous rocks was howling, begging the shepherds to go to her. The youngest shepherd stopped and peered down, as though he had heard someone howling again. He saw that the dogs too had stopped. His cold skin tensed, the pain in his fingers shot through his body. For an instant a new silence descended on the silence. Then the dogs ran barking in the direction of the hillside, towards the edge of the precipice behind it. Whichever call was summoning them summoned the shepherds too. Once they reached the edge and looked down they saw the lifeless body lying there.

BN Magazine, London, 2011

Photo taken by Flickr user Adam Allegro.

You are on the side of the full moon. Your wet hair glistens. The crowd surrounding you is a flurry of movement. Arms, heads, even legs, rise and fall. I lose sight of your face. Like all the rootless people who have traversed this sea for centuries, I too beseech God. Until your face reappears among the crowd. You hold onto the shoulder of someone beside you. Your hands are trembling with cold. I can pick out your voice in the chaos.

I remember the first day I heard your voice. I was sitting in the school canteen, eating my lunch and skimming through my notes from that day’s mythology lesson. The sound of your laughter broke my concentration, and when I looked up I saw you at the next table. After that, my days revolved around the echo of your laughter. In class, on the playground, in the street. Your beauty gave me hopelessness rather than hope. In the canteen, I sat at the table beside yours, in class at the desk behind yours, but I couldn’t pluck up the courage to take the final step. I was like the man we learned about in the mythology lesson, who somehow never manages to push his rock up to the peak.

One quiet day close to the exams, I was copying out my notes. You came and stood beside me. You brought your face close to mine. You said lesson, you said exams, you said you take the best notes in class. I replied yes to everything you said. You took the notes in front of me. You returned them the next day. I got your telephone number. I called you the next day. We met in the café opposite school. It wasn’t until several days later that we confessed to each other that we had had the same dream at the same moment.

We had no idea that a livid war was advancing on us like a sandstorm. We were committed to life, not death. We believed in the near, not the far, and not in leaving, but in staying. We couldn’t understand how our lives had been overturned in an instant. As we witnessed cities in ruins, women being sold in slave markets, we felt as though we were in a dream. The news channels did not speak of us, but of the nation, of religion and oil. The politicians’ faith was invested in one little word, victory. No one saw us.

Now we are on the Greek Sea, setting out towards a new horizon. There is nowhere for us to hold onto, I have no idea how many of us there are, we are all trying to fit into a flimsy boat. Clouds shroud the full moon. As the waves strike, our boat rocks from left to right. Once again I search for your face, which has disappeared in the darkness. I call out your name. I shout against the wind until my lungs are about to burst. Those who have fallen into the water are struggling. The women’s and children’s screams intermingle. No one trusts in the full moon, the boat, or the life jackets now. If we turn back, our home is far away; if we continue, the sea is endless. You are there. I can hear your voice. Without considering yesterday, tomorrow, or now, I jump into the water and swim towards you. I want you to believe in me, not in the dark. I listen to the voices behind each wave, and I defy the darkness like an enraged god.

Translated from Turkish by Ümit Hussein
Published on Guernica Magazine on April 8, 2016.