by Hasan Ali Toptas
It is perhaps not surprising that Hasan Ali Toptas has been hailed by the media in Germany as “the Kafka of Turkish literature”. A profound sense of menace, beauty and the surreal pervades his latest novel, Reckless, which has now been translated into English by John Angliss and author Maureen Freely, who has translated five of Orhan Pamuk’s novels.
This masterful translation is a belated introduction to English-language readers of the novels of Toptas, who ranks alongside Pamuk at home in Turkey.
Toptas’ novels and short stories have already been translated into many languages including German, French, Dutch, Swedish and Korean, butReckless, his 10th novel, is the first English translation to hit the global bookshelf, and revolves around the story of a mysterious, 30-year-old friendship between two former soldiers, Ziya and Kenan. It begins with Ziya closing the door to his apartment and visiting his landlady, Binnaz Hannum, who lives on the 19th floor, in order to return the key. In this simple act, Toptas transports the reader to the bloodstream of this noisy apartment complex in the middle of one of Turkey’s sprawling cities.
Within a heartbeat, we are, like Ziya, enveloped in the haze of Binnaz’s cigarette smoke, drinking coffee from a tiny cup embellished with flowers, and intrigued by her sweetly perfumed, gazelle-like maid.
But a word of warning: this is not a novel that reveals its secrets or structural bones easily. It is instead a novel that unfurls languorously in a series of dream-like, often baffling, layers until it reaches the mystery at its core.
Along the way we are taken ever deeper into Ziya’s world, a world that is rendered eerily beautiful by Toptas’ beguiling prose, but remains haunted by a sense of mystery and menace. Urged by Binnaz to listen to her story before she accepts the key, Ziya feels a crushing weight that anchors him to his chair, “but not the sort you could measure”. Peering out from the window of her apartment, he sees more than despair in the city. “Despair was merely the outer shell beneath which lurked the deepest disarray; a bleak and fearsome stagnation, an absence.”
Even a pigeon at the window takes on a mythic dimension, with Toptas blurring the boundaries between dream and reality as Ziya listens to Binnaz talk about her childhood, all the while suspecting that the pigeon is trying to tell him something. Birds have a particular significance in Reckless: Ziya killed a bird as a boy only to regret it instantly; he has been haunted by winged creatures ever since.
Dreams, even the discussion of dreams, are everywhere in this novel: Ziya, the main protagonist, wonders if his life is merely a dream, and concludes, “I just can’t be sure”.
Binnaz’s account of her childhood abuse and late-life financial success takes us deeper into the labyrinthine workings of this unnamed Turkish city. But Ziya is shocked when Binnaz reveals she knows he plans to leave permanently, and sums up her life story with the cautionary words: “Gratitude is a terrible thing, Ziya Bey, the havoc it wreaks is something only the sufferer can understand.” But the importance of these words don’t fully register until very late in the novel.
It is also relatively late in the narrative that we discover Ziya is haunted by the loss of his wife and unborn child who died in a terrorist bombing of a bookshop they both frequented some 16 years before. Ziya’s life was spared because he’d gone to a watchmaker’s shop nearby and he still feels shame at not having died as well.
By this time, too, we have already relived his childhood memories of his own village, which include an account of the incident that provoked his killing of the bird, the local legend of a giant whirlwind that impaled the children from a nearby village onto trees, and of a wedding and all who attend it.
Everyone in this narrative has a story to tell, be it of their childhood, of old wives’ tales and local legends, or of their favourite dishes – like Ebecik the Midwife who cautions his mother, “when you’re cooking dolmas or pilaf wrapped in vine leaves it should sound like this, ‘stingy pauper, stingy pauper’.” Cooking bulgur, on the other hand, she reveals, sounds like “lady’s thigh-bone, lady’s thigh-bone”. All in all, Reckless is like a tangled coil of tales within tales, designed to draw the reader deep in the warp and weft of Turkey’s present and fabled Ottoman past long before we reach the mysterious heart of the novel.
A third of the novel passes before Ziya arrives at the remote Anatolian village of Yasikoy, where, reunited with his old friend Kenan, we learn of his plans to create a new life of peace and solitude. He has never seen this village before, but memories of the dream-like tales he was told by Kenan, during their military service on the Syrian border 30 years ago, have sustained him all these years.
Kenan has built and furnished a vineyard house for him with money that he has provided, and he is welcomed by Kenan’s family. But when Kenan’s mother says she will be eternally grateful for saving her son’s life while they were in the army, and believes their fates are twinned, he is mystified. And so, searching for the reason why Kenan should feel so deeply in his debt, Ziya plunges deep into the mire of his disturbing memories of serving in the military with his friend.
Matters become even more complicated when village life proves not to be the solace he so craves, but a repository of old antagonisms and fraught desires. When two brothers come to Ziya’s house accusing Kenan of incest with his sister, Nerise, and enlisting his aid in marrying off Nerise to one of them against her wishes, Ziya is unwilling to get involved. But when Kenan is stabbed by another villager, he is dragged deeper into a tangled web of misunderstandings and secrets.
Toptas manages to not only blur the boundaries between dreams and reality, memory and truth, past and present, but also skilfully explores the terrain between friendship and guilt, between love and obsession, between old-world notions of fate and modern happenstance in a tale that is almost picaresque as it ambles towards its tragic and shocking denouement. Or does it?
It’s no accident that the most popular village haunt is called the Coffeehouse of Mirrors. By the end, Toptas has so successfully distorted the dimensions of reality that the reader will identify with its protagonist who can’t be sure he’s not living a dream.
However, its real pay-off lies, surprisingly, in Toptas’ circuitous narration, which sheets home the beauty and complexity of his homeland with a rare and uncontrived vitality.