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Turkey at the Seams: Hasan Ali Toptaș’s “Reckless”

The myth of idyllic village life explodes in Hassan Ali Toptaș’s story of Turkey’s recent past, Reckless. War (with Syria), old family grudges, even military service cannot be erased by friendships from long ago no matter how diligent individuals may be in trying to re-establish those contacts. As one of Toptaș’s characters remarks of village harmony, “In little places like this, when people get bored, they’ll see shit on the ground and use it as an excuse for an argument. If they can’t find a solid excuse then they’ll say, why did you let your chicken come into my courtyard? Or: your donkey brays every time it passes my house, you must be making it do that on purpose.”

The villager continues, “They gain one kind of power from quarrelling, and yet another from making peace. But they have no idea that this is why they do either. But when they’re as tired as worms, they go out looking for a new excuse to argue with their neighbours. And the moment the quarrel starts, they’re bursting with life again. Their spirits soar, and everything they do, or don’t do, takes on new meaning. They feel themselves transformed. Not just the ones who start the quarrel, but the ones they accuse, as well.”

Sound familiar? People can’t stand to be happy; they have to provoke others in order to feel important. Although the remark is made about villagers in a remote part of Turkey, its sense is universal. The speaker might just as easily be talking about politicians in the United States. (Perhaps he is). And the result? People are kept in a constant state of misery, frustration—even well meaning individuals are caught in the trap of collective disappointment. The question we might ask is “Why are so many people in the world angry? Particularly those who do not live in poverty, are not fleeing repressive governments but have, in fact, reasons to be content?”

These are not questions you ask yourself at the confusing beginning of Toptaș’s novel. That chapter (“The Key”) relates the main character’s attempts to return his key to his landlady. Ziya has rented the apartment for seventeen years and decided to leave the city for the country. The problem is that Binnaz Hanim keeps talking and Ziya is reluctant to interrupt her recklessmonologue. There’s a strange incident during those hours when a bird attacks one of the windows in the room where they are sitting. Binnaz Hanim says that her father was murdered. And when Ziya finally leaves her apartment—high up in the multi-storied building—and opens the elevator door, “There was no inside. With terrifying speed, he went tumbling into nothingness. Into night without end.”

Exactly what “The Key” is supposed to tell us is far from clear. The same is true of the second chapter, called “The Dream,” which goes no for an equal number of pages, appears to have little to do with what preceded it, but places us inside Ziya’s thoughts as he thinks of “the deserted streets of his hometown,” while the surreal dream continues for page after page, describing the desert at Turkey’s border with Syria. It’s all very obscure, confusing like a scene from a novel by Kafka, which the publishers mention in their own description of the novel. Do we have a plot yet? Conflict? Doesn’t seem much like it, though the writing is frequently mesmerizing, difficult to put aside.

The center of the novel (literally, as well as figuratively) is what follows.

Ziya has decided to accept his old friend’s offer to move to his village. Ziya and Kenan underwent their military duty together years ago. After that time, Ziya’s wife and unborn child died in a terrorist explosion. He suffers from survivor guilt. When he meets Kenan’s mother in the village, she says something that he cannot understand: “I know that my son owes his life to you.” Ziya has no idea what she means and certainly feels uncomfortable about its implications.

A subsequent chapter (“The Border”) takes us even further back into the lives of these two men, when they were undergoing their military training. Their experiences were often sadistic because of the commanders above them. The war with Syria is the “thick cloud” from the past that unites them. As they hash over those years, the two men begin to encounter hostility from the people in Kenan’s village, as if they cannot accept the arrival of any outsider. What follows is not a pretty picture of small-town life, as the hostility by the villagers becomes uncontrollable.

If Reckless is the depiction of repressed hostilities in Turkey today—which I believe it is—the country is a seething cauldron ready to explode. Issues with the Kurds are mentioned, plus the on going tensions with neighboring Syria. Most of the concluding scenes of the story take place in Urfa, an area of Turkey that today has undergone rapid social change because of the influx of refugees from Syria. Reckless was published in Istanbul in 2013, well after the outbreak of recent tensions between the two countries. My suspicion is that with the massive censorship of the Turkish press, Toptaș chose the safety of obscurity for his narrative rather than the directness of a nice and tidy literal narrative.

Hasan Ali Toptaș: Reckless

Trans. By Maureen Freely and John Angliss

Bloomsbury, 336 pp., $26.00

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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