“Yaban” by Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoglu

Yaban(Author: Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoglu) + (Year: 1932) + (Goodreads)

(Around the world: Turkey)


Review:

Initially I was not sure about this book. Having read Kiralik Konak, I couldn’t fully grasp where the author was going and why he had a sudden change of heart as to his world views. However, I quickly realized that at the beginning of the book he heavily used irony to introduce the strange world of Anatolia to the reader.

Similarly to what I said in my review about The Bridge on the Drina, I think that a person who has never had any kind of contact with Anatolia, and with Turkey outside of Istanbul in general, would have a problem completely understanding Yaban (translated as The Strange on Wikipedia; whereas yabancı is a foreigner, an alien [though not one from outer space]).

This book represents a world that has hardly changed from the time it was written, or, as a matter of fact, the time it is set in, or any time before that. Anatolia is not anything that one could just imagine. The people living there are, and seem to have been for a really long time, suspended in a certain timelessness. Their world might change as the outside world does, but their mindset doesn’t necessarily need to follow.

The main character in Yaban is a veteran from the war, the son of a rich family from Istanbul, who loses his arm during WWI and, defeated, decides to “look for himself” in a quiet village in Anatolia, supposedly somewhere close to Sakarya (which is still far away from inner or Eastern Anatolia, which is yet another, completely different world). What this man is not prepared for is that even though he is from the same country, even though he speaks almost the same language, albeit much more refined, even though he has lost his arm to protect these people, they will never see him as one of them. He is always rejected as a crippled outsider, unwanted and unwelcome. The most that he ever achieves is to be tolerated, but never sought after.

The world has changed a lot since the times of the book – the Turkish Liberation War (1919-1922), but I wouldn’t say that Anatolia has done so, too. I had the opportunity to live in Ankara, the second biggest metropolis in Turkey, and to travel around the country, and I can understand the character of this book very well. While in university life I could almost fit in, especially considering that I speak the language, whenever me and my friends would go on a trip to any other city in Anatolia, we would stick out like a sore thumb. On one occasion we were walking on a seemingly empty market street in a rather big town, only to have every single person from every single store come out to gawk at us in a matter of seconds.

Therefore, this special mindset can be attributed to the culture of this mainland part of Turkey. The closed societies, everyone knowing everybody else, the people sticking together in times of need, but always mistrusting outsiders. This is something that, I believe, was a common phenomenon all over the world before globalization and multiculturalism, but in many parts of the world, and especially Europe, where by many standards Turkey is, it has changed a lot since. More so, even if strangers and foreigners are noticeable in small towns all over Europe, they are still more welcome.

I think that this lack of change in Anatolia can, therefore, be attributed to the continuing conflict between European culture and Islamic tradition. And when I say Islamic tradition, I especially need to underline the word tradition. Because religions of all kinds are tightly linked to following a set of rules which resist time and change and, in some cases, get much stronger with time and under the pressure of outside forces to evolve.

What bothered me in this story is also closely linked to the traditionalism of religion. Yaban is very actual today. I am afraid to say that in the last century it has never been more close to the reality of the current situation than today. The book is set right in the middle of Ataturk’s war for the liberalization of Turkey. Ataturk’s ideas were very controversial at the time. Today he is widely beloved, but that was not necessarily so during his rise to power. He was also considered an outsider and even an oppressor by some. And the main reason for that was that Ataturk shared many of the European values, including the idea that religion should not play a central role in society. Which means that after he became head of the newly born Turkish Republic, he lowered the importance of religion and went ahead to educate the people in a new set of cultural values.

In recent years religion has been re-gaining its positions, which means that more and more people become torn between Westernization and dedication to Islam. And this time around the government, in opposition to Ataturk’s principles, is promoting the role of religion, therefore taking a step back from what was achieved during the Liberation War. And never has the following quote from the book been more relevant to society, and not in a good way:

– I know, you are one of them. 
– Who are “them”?
– The ones who support Kemal Pasha [Ataturk].
– How can a man be a Turk and not support Kemal Pasha?
– My friend, we are not Turks.
– What are you, then?
– We are Muslim, alhamdulillah, praise be to God.

(translated by me) 

 

 

“The Bridge on the Drina” by Ivo Andric

The Bridge on the Drina(Author: Ivo Andric) + (Year: 1945) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Bosnia and Herzegovina)


Review:

I loved this book!

How I felt about it can be summarized in a short form, however, why I felt that way might be a bit harder to explain. Or rather, how I loved it, and not how much.

The thing is I’m not sure that anyone who is not from the Balkans would be able to understand me fully. While this world of ours might be full of corruption, uneducated people, bad governments, lawlessness and even backwardness, it’s still a very special place on this planet. No other place mixes the East and the West as much as we do here. No other people in the world are so torn between how they are, and how they should be.

The Bridge on the Drina tells exactly that story. The story of me sitting with my great-grandmother in the shade in hot summers, eating the best tomatoes in the world, with some white cheese; the stories that she would tell me about the war, and how she would tell them – in a language not quite Bulgarian, full of Turkish loan words from the centuries before, when the Ottoman ruled over the Balkans. The Bridge on the Drina is also a story of my hometown, where my school was built on top of an old Turkish graveyard and the ghosts would roam with their horses at night, where everyone knows each other, and everyone, always, knows your dad! And also about how men would gather by the river, under the chestnut trees and drink rakia, while playing cards. And how they would call the gypsy orchestras to play music until dawn. How every village or city, or even a neighbourhood, has its own legend of the boys taken for the devshirme, the most cruel of taxes, or about a brave man who would conquer armies in order to win the heart of the girl he loves, and of the brave Christian girls, who, in order to protect their religion and virtue, would jump off of high rocks and waterfalls when soldiers would try to steal them from their homes.

The Bridge on the Drina is my childhood in a nutshell. I might have lived centuries after the events of the book, but on the Balkans, the story hasn’t changed that much.

This book is the story of many generations of people, and how life will always go on; that the darkest days will always end, and that they will soon be forgotten and the people will once again settle in their slumber of a half-drunken life, one that lacks great purpose, and gains from that, as the small moments are always better appreciated. The Bridge on the Drina describes a world which is dying today: one in which it serves no goal to hurry along, that a moment spent gazing at the river is not a moment wasted, and that life will always run in its own direction and you can but choose how to feel about that.

“The Lover” by Marguerite Duras

The Lover (The Lover, #1)(Author: Marguerite Duras) + (Year: 1984) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Vietnam)


Review:

The prose of The Lover is beautiful. It opens for the reader a window into the sensual thoughts of a young girl, thirsty for passion and desire; haunted by the sad reality in which her family lives, but also obsessed with being loved, being noticed, being adored.

This semi-biographical novel tells the story of young Duras, wild, untamed and passionate. But as far as others see the main character as such, she, herself, is a ghost in this world. She is torn between what she craves in life, and what her duties are. She certainly doesn’t want to do what people tell her, but being born in the time she was, she is not always in control of her life. That role often belongs to her brother, a gambling spoiled brat who respects no one and nothing but his own desires; or her mother, a woman distraught by her poorness, but unable to decline her son’s every wish, be it attention or money.

That being so, the young girl is never really alive, and always too alive, too bright, overshadowing everyone around herself, and drowning in their shadow. And this girl falls in love, or is full of desire for a young Chinese heir who can never be more than her lover. As everything about her, this love is also quite the opposite, it is often a fiery hate. It is doomed, but it can also never be any other way.

Because of that, The Lover is a tragic letter to things lost a long time ago, from that love, to youth, innocence and family comfort.

This book, however, defies my beliefs about humanity. Or rather, what I strive to believe in. I don’t want to fully give in to the notion that people can be as horrible, cruel and cold as they are in The Lover. I remain opposed to the idea that humans can be gorged out of emotions in such a way. I don’t want to believe that beauty can only be found in tragedy. Nor that the human is so selfish and powerless.

“The Whale Rider” by Witi Ihimaera

The Whale Rider(Author: Witi Ihimaera) + (Year: 1987) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: New Zealand)


Review:

In all honesty, this was a peculiar little book. I both liked it, and didn’t like it. I’m saying this in the sense that while I was reading The Whale Rider, I wasn’t bored out of my mind. However, at the same time, I can’t say that I actually enjoyed myself.

So in a way, this book just was. 

The story was interesting in its entirety and the fairytale quality of the entire novel. There are two stories between which the narration shifts: “current times” and the birth of Kahu, a little girl who possesses the spirit of Maori mythology, but is not loved by her grandfather, who, as the “chief” of the community, wants a grandson and is always displeased with little Kahu; and the stories from the Maori legends about the whale riders, and the pain of a whale which was ridden by the last whale rider.

As you can imagine, Kahu’s story is very endearing and cute, and the whales’ story has more of a surreal quality. However, this would be an oversimplification of how exactly wild this book gets at times. It’s a wildness in the method and narration, rather than one in the actual events, but ultimately leads to a very fairytale-ish world of collision between myth and reality.

This, however, can also be confusing, as I wasn’t sure how I’m supposed to take the story: utter fiction? Mythological reality? Fairtytale? My confusion lead me to that awkward moment which one experiences when they meet someone who seems to be insane and one doesn’t know if that person is joking/sarcastic, or really mentally unstable. (In all fairness, I’m in this situation more often than I should.)

The other thing which a story like this heavily influences is the depth of the characters. Mythological characters are rarely very deep and well-developed, so in a book which is unsure about its allegiances with reality, expectedly, the characters were not really three intentional.

Lastly, while I enjoyed the stories about Kahu, I was rather bored with the whale narration and the general repetitiveness of the book. Every encounter with Kahu and her grandfather, or the two of her grandparents just ended up being the exact same chapter over and over again, down to the actual expressions.

On the positive side, I learned very interesting things, albeit minor ones, about the Maori culture and the belief system they have, to a degree. So, while this was not the most successful encounter, it was definitely not without virtues.

“Satantango” by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Satantango(Author: Laszlo Krasznahorkai) + (Year: 1985) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Hungary)


Review:

I don’t even know what rating to give to this book. Should I rate the style of the book? The ability of the author? How it made me feel? The world it shows? I don’t know the answer to that question, so I’m just giving a rating which is… just. It’s even possible that I will revisit the review and change it.

If you’re wondering why I start this review with such uncertainty, it is because of the book itself. Satantango is undoubtedly one of the most challenging books to classify in any way. It is a snarl of dehumanized humans and vivid bleakness and full emptiness. 

Satantango tells the story of a small Hungarian village at the beginning of a rainy, cold and muddy winter. The characters are in a constant state of suspended development. Their world does not extend beyond the borders of the property they inhabit. Their dreams, passions and motivations have gone out like a candle, and have been replaced by a total confusion, lack of morale and ruled by an “unbearable lightness”.

The people in this novel are tangibly human, with earthly passions and desires which don’t go beyond the physical, but at the same time, they have left the realm of the living and have turned into ghosts in a cold ghost town. Every character is fighting with their own deep, dark and moldy existence. From the doctor who is living in an alcohol daze of his own filth, to a desperate abandoned little girl, so thirsty for attention and love that is willing to cause harm to others and herself, to the gossiping women, the greedy men, the pointlessness and the deep void of them being not quite alive.

The story, told in long, unbroken paragraphs of fractured events, develops from two different main sides, the villagers, all of them intertwined, telling the same story of their sad, miserable life, and Irimias, the mysterious, charming man that they all crave to be, crave to be with, or crave to follow. Irimias is just a small middleman between the ruling power and the peasants, however, in the eyes of the latter, he is a ruler in his own right, a gentleman, a force of nature. They let themselves be enticed and outsmarted by Irimias, and not for any other reason, but because in their eyes, he is alive, where they aren’t.

Krasznahorkai‘s writing in undoubtedly beautiful, but in a very unsettling, and even upsetting way; absurd and confusing. He pays a lot of attention to the small details, the mold in the cracks, the rips in the clothing, the dirt under the nails, while at the same time telling a story which is both simple, and infinitely convoluted. I wouldn’t say that he’s an easy author to read in the slightest. The reader is in a constant state of alertness, because at the same time so much is happening and nothing is happening, so one missed line of text could equal an entire story.

While I did like, and at the same time felt very burdened by this book, I’m not sure I will revisit Krasznahorkai’s novels. One, for sure, is worth reading, but closing yourself in this dark, empty and scary world is not something that I want to volunteer for.