“Dead Male Birds” by Inci Aral

Ölü Erkek Kuşlar(Author: Inci Aral) + (Year: 1996) + (Goodreads)

(Around the world: Turkey)


Review:

Turkish literature strikes again.

I’m not sure how to weigh this book’s positives and negatives.

Turkish literature and modern Balkan literature are quite unusual in comparison to American and British literature even when the same genre (i.e. adult fiction) is concerned. The Western world puts a lot more focus on the plot, the twists and the turns in the story, of trauma, especially hidden one.

However, all the modern Turkish literature I have read is entirely centered on the characters. This book is not an exception. I will write specifically about Dead Male Birds, but everything that I say can easily be applied to every other book that I have had access to, that is set in Turkey in the last 20-30 years.

Dead Male Birds is a book about a woman who is torn between two men. The narrative is non-linear and, at times, very confusing. The main character, Suna, is having a conversation with her husband Ayhan, and she is suddenly elsewhere, in a different time and place, with her lover Onur. Then jump back – Suna is having a weird dream. Jump forward – we are in a movie theater and something completely different is happening. Then we are back to Ayhan, then months forward to Onur…

The writing is not without merit. The author is well-versed into describing emotions and emotional states. What is lacking is the reasoning behind the emotions. Suna is completely undecided on what she wants from her life, and more importantly, who she wants. Time and again she pushes both men our of her life, then draws them back in. We are privy into her desperation and sadness, but we never really find out why she is doing any of this.

The entire plot doesn’t really move much, to begin with. The story is very drawn-out, unnecessary long, and often repetitive.

The characters are developed to different levels. Emotionally, Suna is a very rich character. However, Ayhan is only represented by his actions toward Suna, and nothing more. Onur, the lover, is described up to the point where his relationship with Suna starts. After that he becomes this blank person who just pushes Suna’s inner drama.

I think the reason for this is that Dead Male Birds is a rather feminist book, or an attempt at one. It deals with the woman’s role in society, how her life is planned out, how she is not much more than a piece of furniture in the house. And while this book was written 20 years ago, I don’t think that much has changed for women in Turkey. They are still first and foremost wives and mothers, and then maybe, maybe, if they fight hard for it, they might try to be something else. That, however, carries yet another stigma – the one of the women who want to step out of the regulations.

One of my favourite parts of the book is the role-reversal between Suna and Ayhan. Ayhan, a scholar who has lived abroad, grows tired of his wife’s passivity, the fact that she is not as well educated as he is and also the fact that she doesn’t have friends of her own, doesn’t have a job, doesn’t have interests. At that point, he sees that she has been indoctrinated into being this person, and he doesn’t like it. So he makes a contract according to which Suna has to start standing on her own feet, to read and learn, to find friends and a job. Once that happens, she realizes that she can be much more than his wife, while he realizes that he doesn’t really want her to be that well educated after all.

For me, this is a real issue in countries like Turkey. From firsthand experiences from friends and, mostly, acquaintances, Turkish men often mistreat their wives and girlfriends because they see them as dull and boring, and they go to look for adventures outside of home. (Once at a social gathering I heard the following: “Give me a second to tell my girlfriend that I am in bed, so that she can go to sleep.” “But you are at a party.” “She doesn’t have to know that.” “But that’s not right.” “Come on, she is so annoying, she’ll ask me who’s here and so on, and she obviously can’t come, this is not a place for her.” And later that guy found another girl to keep him entertained.) But once those same “dull and boring” girls try to liberate themselves, they become undesirable, too loose, too frivolous in the eyes of society.

The author tries to make her own comment on this fact, but then forgets to build a story around it, so the book turns into an really long narrative of the suffering of three broken, damaged and selfish people.

“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) 

 

 

“Smilla’s Sense of Snow” by Peter Høeg

Smilla's Sense of Snow(Author: Peter Høeg) + (Year: 1995) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Denmark)


Review:

Smilla’s Sense of Snow depicts the victims in the world of the strong. The struggle of the outsiders in the country of their conquerors. It tells a lot about the systematical overtaking of the Danish culture against that of the Inuits. It also shows the cold world of power, money and desire for fame and glory, which is common for all people, but has no equal than that of the Western, developed, world, where people have already managed to get what they need to cover their basic needs, so they now have the spare time to struggle for things less essential, but just as important to them. Smilla’s Sense of Snow in some ways encapsulates everything that I have heard about the cold north of Europe.

This is also the point in which you can see the gap between the developed world and the third world countries. In the former, they fight for glory, in the latter – for survival.

However much Smilla’s Sense of Snow told me of Denmark, as a book it was a lot more mediocre than I hoped. While I do have my prejudices against people whose main motivation in life is power and money, I am not saying that I dislike the people in countries like Denmark. On the contrary, I have recently developed quite a fascination with this small and less loved Scandinavian country (especially as I have so many Swedish friends who dislike it). Therefore, I did have high expectations for Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

The first 100 or so pages were very good and riveting. The mystery developed fast and it went deep. I had no idea what to expect and I was eager to go further. After those first 100 pages, though, things started getting increasingly worse. There was a constant stream of characters who served the same purpose, had the same personality, and all hated the main character, Smilla. At one point, more than halfway through the book, I just gave up trying to keep track of everyone. Too many names, too many unimportant stories, too much fluff.

And don’t even get me started on the stories. From the mystery around the death of a young boy, this book took so many turns, went through so many sub-plots, so much insanity… The author didn’t stop for a second to throw one thing after the other. Each of these elements could have made a fine book all on their own, but Høeg was relentless: murder, drugs, smugglers, Nazis, meteorites, legends, science fiction, ships, agents, killer parasites, Inuit culture, snow, ice, ice, snow, BDSM, ice, missing mothers, dead fathers. Not one of the stories was even finished. Most of all, I expected some sort of a conclusion to the death of Isiah, but I did so in vain. Høeg tried, but failed miserably, to explain the death and give closure. And I was there asking myself “Was that it?” Not to mention that the meteorite story did not fit into the world of this book at all. It was as if I was reading two different books simultaneously, and neither me, nor the characters could understand what to make of it.

If you think that, taking all of this into account, this was a fast-paced book, you would be wrong. For every half a page of intense action, there were 20 pages of descriptions of how many centimeters there are from the door to the light switch, and what the quality of the silence in the room is, and last, but not least, ice and snow and ice. I know that the book’s title is Smilla’s Sense of Snow, but to be describing in detail every state of snow and ice for pages on end is quite special. Not in a very positive way.

Lastly, Smilla might be one of the least pleasant main characters that I have read about. She is extremely angsty, but I failed to understand WHY exactly that is. Sure, her life was not a fairytale, but for example, why did she hate her father so much? What was the reason for that? I never got it. I just knew that she hates him, so by default we have to hate him, too. Also, Smilla is so self-contradictory that she is not a realistic character at all. She spends 99% of her time in the present moping around and daydreaming about 50 shades of snow; and in her memories, she is spending extensive amounts of time reading to Isiah or giving him baths. However, while that was happening, she also managed to go to 20 expeditions to Greenland, to write 2000 papers, to get 89 university degrees, to be arrested 50 times, to tag polar bears, to spend time on ships, to be a part of a million institutions, to sit around and hate her father, to run away from home and go to Greenland without money or documents, to become a person of interest to the police, to investigate, to be well schooled in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering… Do you see where I am going? And now, her age: 37. As a conclusion, I would say that Smilla is not a very well built character. She is mean for no reason whatsoever, she hates everyone, despite having had a mostly good life, and she is rude and self-important.

I like him. I have a weakness for losers. Invalids, foreigners, the fat boy of the class, the ones that nobody ever wants to dance with. My heart beats for them. Maybe because I’ve always known that in some way I will forever be one of them. 

Err… why?

“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.