Appeared in Quadrant, December 2015
A Strangeness in My Mind
By Orhan Pamuk
Hamish Hamilton, $33, 624 pages, ISBN 9780307700292
The House in Smyrna
By Tatiana Salem Levy
Scribe, $28, 160 pages, ISBN 9781925106411
The Secret Son
By Jenny Ackland
Allen & Unwin, $30, 336 pages, ISBN 9781925266160
At one point, the key character is Orhan Pamuk’s sprawling novel A Strangeness in My Mind muses that Istanbul is like the centre of the world, a conjunction of frontiers between continents, between history and the present, between what has been lost and what has been found. The theme of cultural and psychological borders recurs throughout A Strangeness in My Mind as well as two other new novels connected to Turkey, The House in Smyrna by Brazilian-based Tatiana Salem Levy and The Secret Son, the debut novel by Australian writer Jenny Acland. Pamuk, Levy and Acland are also determined to push the frontier of narrative methods; as a result, all three books are difficult, but all three repay the effort.
A Strangeness in My Mind is a vast story, with a strong element of epic soap opera and a streak of weird humour. The main character, Mevlut, represents Turkey’s struggle to balance its long and rich history with the need to build a modern, Western-inclined society. He is a country boy who is swept into the capital, along with his extended and rather strange family, by the social currents of the latter third of the twentieth century. In Istanbul, he becomes a street-food vendor but his real love is selling boza, a traditional fermented drink that contains alcohol, but not so much that it breaks the Koranic prohibition. Boza can be seen as a metaphor for Turkey’s twin obsessions, setting rules and finding a way to get around them. Mevlut’s meanderings around the city allow him to discover its layers and facets, its deep past and ongoing conflicts. A good number of pages are spent on street-food culture, and how it has shifted as the city’s social demography has evolved and Western fast-food offerings have crept in.
Pamuk, who has won the Nobel Prize for literature although he originally trained as an architect, has explored the organic nature of cities before, in his novels The Black Book and Cevdet Bey and His Sons. But those told the story of Istanbul through westernised characters, and here he is seeing the view from the inside, infusing it with the odd sense of melancholy that the Turks call huzun. Mevlut, like Pamuk, likes old things: stones worn smooth by touch, back alleys, faded colour. Over the years he watches a different city emerge, a place “dreadful and dazzling at once”, with new dreams and new politics.
Part of Mevlut’s sense of feeling that the world has played an unfunny joke on him comes from his early, flailing attempts at romance. He first falls in love with a young girl, sending messages through his brother. But their elopement plans take the wrong path: the brother inadvertently delivers not the object of Mevlut’s affection but her older sister, Rayiha. Sorry, Mevlut, that’s life: more huzun. But the two of them manage to make a decent relationship out of it, and plain Rayiha turns out to be clever and strong. They try, and partially succeed, to create a circle of calm despite the increasing clamour of the city changing around them and Mevlut’s eccentric family.
If this sounds like a fairly straightforward novel, it isn’t. There are multiple narrators (mainly Mevlut’s family), often contradicting and shouting over one another. This can make an already long book – over 600 pages – seem chaotic at first, even though Pamuk helpfully provides a cast list. But once the reader has got the hang of it the structure is more like one of the city’s mosaics, using shards and pieces to build a complex picture that only falls into place at a certain distance.
Some readers might also find the lack of a clear conclusion difficult – the closest the book comes to a happy ending is that one of Mevlut’s daughters manages to overcome the strictures placed on women to graduate from university. And then she announces she is going to move away. Huzun again, but there is also Mevlut’s gratitude for what life has given him in the way of quiet revelations and unexpected gifts.
The House in Smyrna is a shorter piece of work but no less dense, in its way, and no less about frontiers and the crossing of them. Tatiana Salem Levy’s parents were Turkish Jews who moved to Brazil, eventually ending up in Portugal (Tatiana was born in Lisbon) to escape the military dictatorship. Levy uses the pieces of her parents’ lives as the background to the novel, which is told in truncated, alternating passages, jumping between times, places, and unidentified narrative voices.
The starting point is an unnamed young woman lying in bed, wasting away to disease and despair. In an attempt to rally her, her grandfather gives her a key, which he says is the key to the door of the house he left in Smyrna, a town on the western coast of Turkey. The story spurs her recovery and sets her on a journey to discover the truth of her family by tracing their steps. She is uncertain how much this will help her settle her own confused identify, and there are several meditations on how personality is formed by the intersection of events, travels and imagination.
Woven into her wandering is the story of the young woman’s parents, idealistic communists who were persecuted and tortured for their political views. There are imaginary conversations between the young woman and her mother, who has identity issues of her own not resolved even by death. There is also the arc of a transgressive sexual relationship between the protagonist and a man who at first appears to have wandered into the book from Fifty Shades of Grey. But the point eventually emerges, and the relationship illustrates the woman’s sense of loss and confusion. She likes to pull sheets over her lovers’ faces, and her own, emulating a burial shroud, for example. She remarks to her mother that she writes about pain because it is all she really knows. Not pain in the actual sense, but wounds of the soul, a feeling of guilt and hollowness. It is the malaise of affluence, the nature of being the offspring of refugees. Comfort, security, possessions: they can seem meaningless, even insulting, when put against the travails of previous generations.
Her eventual arrival in Turkey is about crossing a psychic frontier more than a line on the map. She is surprised to feel at home here, healed by the age and ambiguity of the country. She visits a mosque, not as a search for faith but to try and understand how it fits into the culture. She is eventually turned away but finds a community of women in an ancient bath-house, and here the narrative idea of image-driven sections works particularly well. She feels she has reached some sense of self when a taxi driver tells her she has “a Turkish face”. She carries that sense with her when she leaves the country, and there is a sudden burst of violence that gives way to solace – perhaps not redemption for the future, but at least acceptance of the past and the present.
The tessellated method of storytelling allows Levy to cover a great deal of ground, both physically and mentally. The downside is that incidents often end just as they are getting interesting (this is especially a problem with the scenes of her parents in Brazil; it can look as if major events are being trivialised). The House in Smyrna is certainly a challenge to read, but that is part of its point. All frontiers are difficult to cross.
Unlike Pamuk and Levy, Ackland is new to the business of novel-writing, although she has published a number of stories. She writes with surprising authority and is not afraid to push the limits of plausibility. The central premise of The Secret Son, for instance, is that Ned Kelly had a son called James, who was raised by his mother in the country town of Beechworth unaware of the identity of his near-mythical father. It’s possible, one supposes – but on the other hand whether it is truth or fiction does not really matter (as is the case with much in this novel).
As it happens, James grows up to be a rather bookish, gentle sort of fellow who nevertheless finds himself on the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915. In a moment of kindness, he saves a young Turkish soldier; when James is later wounded and left for dead after the evacuation, that soldier saves him and takes him to his home town, the mountain village of Hayat. James comes to like and then love the place. The dreamlike quality of the village and its people is underscored by the all-knowing and mystical Aunt Berna, a woman who can see patterns of fortune in things as ordinary as beans, or in the trees of the hills. It is Berna who acts, more or less, as the narrative anchor.
For James, the question first seems to be whether his life in Australia was more real than his life in Hayat. But over time he comes to understand that the real issue is whether one can lead a good, meaningful life regardless of the place, the circumstances, and the genes.
Yet James’ story is only one part of the book. Another narrative, set in more recent times, takes place alongside it, telling the story of Cem Kologlu, a young Turk travelling from Melbourne to Hayat, his family village. On the way he links up with an historian seeking the truth about the Kelly connection. Ties between the two men, and the people and the place they seek, slowly emerge. Some are more believable than others, although what might be far-fetched coincidence might actually be the silent hand of destiny.
There are debts to repay and secrets to uncover, with Berna watching over it all. One realises how Australian the Kelly myth is, and how strange the story of the man in the iron mask must seem to other peoples, let alone an isolated place with a unique culture of its own. A writer less brave than Ackland might have baulked at mixing these elements together but she makes it work, and the end of the complex story is at once unexpected and suitable.
Ackland has a good eye for telling details: the gentle plod of a donkey, the smell of tea and figs from the village houses, the precarious position of the houses on the hillside. The parts of the book that take place elsewhere are less strong but this is hardly a fatal flaw. After all, one place in a novel is as real as any other, or perhaps none of them are.
If these three books are about the frontiers of culture and psychology, they are also about the frontier of modern writing. Multiple narrators, unreliable voices, stories that break apart and then come together again: this is the leading edge of the novel form. It demands energy and attention from the reader, and a willingness to suspend belief that goes beyond that of more traditional writing. Equally, the common themes of sustaining one’s identity while all that supported it is drifting away can be confronting: here, there is not much in the way of happily ever after.
Despite their complexity – perhaps because of it – A Strangeness in My Mind, The House in Smyrna and The Secret Son are solid achievements, each in their own way. They are full of the mystery of a new landscape and the pleasures of the familiar, of connections and the unexplained, of the distant horizon and the home. They are, in the end, much like life.