November 3, 2009


ISTANBUL Some of the writers who gathered on Tuesday evening to read selections from their work at the D& R bookstore on Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main pedestrian boulevard, had trouble understanding one another. The reading was one of dozens of events held city-wide as part of the four-day long, inaugural Tanpınar Literature Festival, organized by Istanbul’s Kalem literary agency.

The festival, billed as the city’s first international event of its kind, attracted some 90 writers from 32 countries. It featured readings, debates, book signings and lectures on topics ranging from “Being European,” to “Trends in International Publishing.” But translators were in scarce supply, with predictable consequences: Turkish and foreign authors found each other mutually incomprehensible. This was the very problem the festival was meant to redress.

Named in honor of the modernist 20th-century Turkish poet, essayist, and novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, the festival’s official theme was “City and Time,” an allusion to Tanp?nar’s best-known novel, The Time Regulation Institute. The poignant unofficial theme, however, was Turkey’s literary isolation, both from its own past and from the rest of the world.

Hava Pinhas-Cohen, an Israeli poet, was among the guests who could neither fully understand the readings nor make herself fully understood. Turkish literature, she says, generally suffers from this problem: The paucity and poor quality of translations from foreign texts into Turkish “has kept Turkish literature from fully developing.” Turkish modern literature, as a consequence, “is very young—only about twenty years old. Very few poets are really writing modern Turkish poetry. Most is still connected to pathos, nationalism.”

Nor are Turkish writers widely translated into other languages. Nermin Mollaoğlu, the founder of the Kalem agency and the festival’s organizer, conceived of the festival as a way of raising the profile of talented Turkish writers who are not known or translated outside of Turkey—most of them, in other words. “We’re reading garbage authors from contemporary French and American literature,” she said. “But they’re translated into Turkish. We have authors who deserve to be translated and read worldwide.” Directly behind her, although politely ignored by those who had come for the reading, stood a tall stack of Dan Brown’s latest novel, translated into Turkish. To judge from the size and prominence of the display, the book is very much in demand.

Only a handful of Turkish writers are widely known in the West, the most obvious of them being Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. There is a growing awareness of Turkey in overseas literary circles: The country was featured as a guest of honor in last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest literature event. But many Turkish writers of considerable talent remain largely unknown to readers abroad. Ayfer Tunç, for example, one of Mollaoğlu’s clients, has recently written, in Mollaoğlu’s words, “a modern 1001 Arabian nights.” So far no foreign publisher has bitten. Tunç’s previous work has been translated into Arabic and six Balkan languages—but not into English, French or German.

Mollaoğlu is determined to remedy this. She corners foreign editors at the Frankfurt book fair and forces them to read Turkish writers. “I tell them, ‘You don’t know Turkey. I’m telling you that you have to read this book. Just read the first page.’” She has had some unlikely successes, too. Despite the infamously grim publishing climate in America, she recently sold Istanbul was a Fairy Tale, an 800-page novel by a third-generation Jewish Turk, Mario Levy, to the American publisher Dalkey Archive. The book, Mollaoğlu says with pleasure, is “just perfect.”

But this is the exception, and if people overseas don’t read Turkish literature, says author Çiler Ilhan, who on Monday read from her collection of short stories, written in the magical realist tradition, they will fail to understand Turkey. “They’ll only get to know Turkey through TV and newspapers and the filter of politics. They’ll only see what politicians want to show them.” There is more to Turkey, she says, “than the Kurdish question, than the oppression of women.”

Ilhan’s work is not available in translation.

If it is sad to think that so few of Turkey’s writers are read outside of Turkey, it is an even sadder to think that so few of Turkey’s writers are read in Turkey, either. There are few large bookstores outside of the big cities; in the countryside, there is little access to books at all. At least 80 percent of Turkey’s 70 million population is literate, but according to Turkish Education Ministry statistics, only four percent occasionally read a book. Those they do read are more often than not written by foreigners: At least half of the books published in Turkey are translations from the English, German, and French. “Even Turkish authors don’t really read other Turkish writers,” says Ilhan.

If Turkey is alienated from its own literary tradition, this is certainly not because that tradition is not rich. Quite the contrary. But literature—like everything in Turkey—has been subordinated to the political imperative of wrenching Turkey from the East and aligning it with Europe.

In particular, with the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish language was ripped apart and re-engineered. The elite of the Ottoman Empire conversed and wrote in Ottoman Turkish, a mixture of Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Persian, not Turkish, was the primary language of high Ottoman literature; Ottoman Turkish borrowed entire expressions and syntactic structures from the Arabic and Persian. Atatürk’s goal was to produce a modern Turkish, a language that would sever Turkey’s relationship with the Islamic world and orient the infant Republic to the West. In 1928, the Grand National Assembly approved the new Latin alphabet. The language was purified of “foreign influences.” Arabic and Persian words were expunged from the dictionary, leaving Turks permanently estranged from their literary past.

Like most Turks, Mollaoğlu celebrates Atatürk’s reforms, which in her view were both necessary and salutary. But it meant, she says, “deleting all your memories, history, emotions. You start from the beginning. It is a very significant thing in our literary history.”

Turkish literature, adds Ilhan, has since this period been “very driven by politics … The first Turkish writers, in the new alphabet, were commissioned by the state to explain the Republic. The effort to educate the public dominated Turkish literature for at least the Republic’s first twenty years. Some of these books were very good, despite their political purpose, because they were talented writers.” Nonetheless, they were above all political books.

Military coups, in 1960, 1971 and 1980, were followed by waves of arrests and bans on artists and writers. Talented writers were often silenced; untalented writers elevated to celebrity only by virtue of their martyrdom. The years after the 1980 coup, Ilhan says, in a sentiment other writers at the festival echo, were from a literary point of view “lost years.” Mollaoğlu points out that during periods of military rule, the percentage of books published in Turkey by foreign authors rose—because Turkey’s own writers were silenced.

Since 2000, however, says Ilhan, there has been an opening of the literary climate. Books “about Armenians, Kurds, real stories” have been published. Still, Turkish writers remain isolated. The new Turkish alphabet may look European, but Turkish remains a particularly inaccessible language for Europeans, and European languages, likewise, are particularly difficult for Turks. Turkish belongs to the Ural-Altaic language family, which has almost nothing in common with any of Europe’s major literary languages. The number of Turks who can read any foreign language to the level required really to enjoy reading a book in it is miniscule. Some, perhaps, can struggle grimly through a book written in English or French, but few could take much pleasure in it.

Turkish writers have therefore spent most of the past century working in a vacuum, reinventing the wheel. And those who do have access to foreign literature, by virtue of a rarified education, can’t refer to it without making their own work inaccessible to most Turkish readers. Serdar Özkan, for example, another writer who read his work at the festival, recently became the one of the most-translated novelists in the history of Turkish literature, exceeded in popularity only by Pamuk and Ya?ar Kemal. But the inscription prefacing his first novel, The Missing Rose, is from William Blake’s famous poem, The Sick Rose—famous, that is, among English-speakers. The novel is woven throughout with references to sick roses, but only a tiny handful of Turkish readers would recognize this allusion. Ironically, the theme of the book is the Turkish propensity to give excessive weight to the opinions of others, and the rose, clearly, is used as a metaphor for Turkey.

The problem of bringing Turkish writers to the world’s attention is not limited to translation. Another obstacle, says Mollaoğlu, is Turkish authors’ reluctance to publicize themselves, even to the extent of having a website. Literature here “is still considered the highest level of intellectuality,” she says. While writers on the one hand want to sell their books, on the other they are reluctant to think of themselves as “commercial.”

The Turkish reading public reacts to this attitude, predictably, by viewing writers with suspicion. Cihan Akkartal represents Pupa Publishing, which focuses on the acquisition of books from the neighboring regions around Turkey. The marketing problem, she says, “is significant, because Turkey doesn’t have a big reading culture.” Literature, she notes, is seen as something “elite and esoteric.” The Ministry of Culture runs 1,400 lending libraries, but does little to make them attractive: “People don’t know they’re there,” she adds, and if they do, view them as grim and forbidding.

Yet other foreign writers at the festival were impressed by the passion and engagement of Turkish readers. Andrej Blatnik, a Romanian author whose short stories have been translated into Turkish, receives letters from Turkish readers, many over Facebook, in numbers that surprise him. “I don’t usually accept friend requests from people I don’t know, but if I get one from Turkey, I accept it, because I know it’s from someone who read my book.”

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