Is Hasan Ali Toptaş’s Reckless “an embarrassment of bad sentences”, “an excruciatingly portentous affair”?
or is it
“a world that is rendered eerily beautiful by Toptaş’s beguiling prose”?
Is it “a postmodern Twilight Zone: dark, bizarre, and a bit pretentious”?
or does it have a “remarkably rich and affecting texture”?
I started to look at reviews of this book because I genuinely didn’t know what I thought about it. Was my problem that I didn’t understand the traditions of Turkish literature, that I was reading it with the wrong expectations? Was it, I wondered, the fact that it was in translation that the style sometimes did seem so bad?
Red smoke rose in veins from shadows clouded by the soiled music of despair (3)
Their clapped-out combat boots left little clouds of dust like baby’s breath in their wake (44)
What was I to make of a young village boy speaking like this?
“When a heart gets burned or broken, it’s outside the body, that’s what,” said the older boy. “Maybe it’s the body that’s outside the heart when that happens? But how should I know? As if I could know that kind of thing.” (50)
Are we supposed to accept that real boys might speak like this, or to accept that the boy is simply the vehicle for an idea? I think it’s the second of these two, but I can’t be sure. And if it is, what’s the idea?
The main character, Ziya, is a fifty-year old man who decides to leave Istanbul to live in the peaceful village of his old army friend Kenan. Thirty years ago they endured two brutal years of national service together out on the god-forsaken border between Turkey and Syria. In the intervening years Ziya has lost his wife and his unborn child to a terrorist bombing in Istanbul. Now all he wants is peace and forgetfulness. The book starts with a surreal dream sequence in which Ziya attempts to give back his apartment key to his landlady, only to be trapped in an apparently endless monologue about her youth. The apartment fills with mist and smoke. There is an odd little maid doing mysterious paperwork. A pigeon rams the window of the apartment, terrorises the occupants and then disappears as if by magic. Ziya finally gets out only to tumble down the liftshaft into another dream about his own youth.
Dream flows into dream containing another dream and quite often I had to stop and turn back to see whether I was in Ziya’s dream or in his present reality. It can be really enjoyable to surrender yourself to this kind of narrative, like sitting back in the passenger seat of a speeding car when you trust the driver. I just didn’t know whether I could trust the driver, or how sound the car was.
I was still wondering what was the point of that very long landlady sequence, apart from the fact that the bird symbolism was clearly going to be important. The landlady may have said some wise words, but there were so many words. More birds in the second dream, this time a lovely little bird that the boy Ziya, to his own horror, kills with his slingshot. But why is so much of this dream taken up with the midwife Ebecik telling a long and lurid story about a whirlwind that happened in her childhood, followed by advice on cooking stewed haricot beans?
I think it comes down to this: this voluminous, coiling style of narration full of stories-within-stories was clashing with my Anglo mentality of wanting to have some sense of where I was being taken and why, and I wasn’t enjoying the writing or the stories themselves so much that I didn’t care. The dust started to clear when Ziya actually got to Kenan’s village. Yes, there’s another dream, this time about their military service, but from here on the book is a fairly conventional tale, powerfully told, of the brutality of military life and the obscure purposes of war, and of village life with its human warmth, human spite and the power we have to do each other harm even when we have good intentions. Ziya wanders through his life in a haze of incomprehension and wilfully-suppressed feeling. There are a lot more birds and mists.
Toptaş has been called “the Turkish Kafka”, but there’s none of the relentless chill of Kafka’s logic. It’s a florid, extravagant piece of work that has “alternately frustrated and enchanted reviewers by its labyrinthine maze”.
I’m a big Pamuk fan and was hoping to enjoy this one as much. I have to say I was more frustrated than enchanted.
Hasan Ali Toptaş, Reckless (tr. Maureen Freely and John Angliss, Bloomsbury 2015).