Review: Yusuf Atilgan’s “Motherland Hotel”

For decades when I taught a course in non-Western literature, I included The Blind Owl (1937), by the great Persian writer, Sadegh Hedayat. It’s a mesmerizing story of a deranged man (told from his point-of-view) who murdered his wife and has spent much of his life in an insane asylum. Or so it seems, although you can never be certain, because he is truly an unreliable narrator who constantly tells us that he is making up the story, which he calls fiction. He also tells us that “The man-wife relationship did not exist between us” and that he has had a sexual attraction to boys. Consumed with enormous guilt, he contemplates suicide. He tells us that he writes to his shadow that looks like an owl. Repeatedly, he gives us variations of the following sentence: “Tales are means of avoiding the real.”

Hedayat’s critics celebrated The Blind Owl as a modernist literary text, though the authorities condemned his homosexuality and his avant-garde life in Paris. Still, the book has survived. Whether or not it is taught in Iranian schools today, I have no way to determine. But, the novel—if nothing else—is a fascinating book to teach because of the intentional confusion of the story. You can never be certain what exactly has happened to the narrator beyond the certainty that the story is a study of madness, which takes me to Motherland Hotel (1973), by Turkish writer Yusuf Atilgan.

City Lights’ edition of the novel is the first published translation of the book into English, though the translation was, apparently, completed in 1977. The translator, Fred Stark, is deceased. Few people were translating Turkish novels in the 1970s. I wouldn’t exactly identify Motherland Hotel as a typical City Lights undertaking, though a query to the publisher revealed that they had worked with Stark on other projects. Which is only to say that this curious little novel—with numerous connections to The Blind Owl—is also a minor masterpiece, only now (forty plus years after its original publication) available to English readers. Orhan Pamuk was written of Atilgan’s work, “I love Yusuf Atilgan; he manages to remain local although he benefits from Faulkner’s works and the Western traditions.” Pamuk’s statement broadens the appeal of the writer who reminded me more of the earlier Middle Eastern writer than the American. So take your pick for influences once you read Motherland Hotel. In any case, you will be rewarded for your time.

Zebercet, the thirty-three-year-old main character and narrator of the story, manages the hotel that was once his family home. He was born in the place, and one of the rooms still has the bed where that birth occurred, though it is rented out like the other rooms as part of the hotel. Zebercet is single, highly sexed and frustrated that his major outlet is the charwoman who cleans the rooms. She’s not particularly attractive, and more often than not, he simply enters her room at night and has intercourse with her though she’s mostly asleep during the activity. All this changes when a beautiful woman spends one night in the rather seedy hotel. She is not at all typical of the usual clientele, which includes men with prostitutes, poor students, and workers. When the woman leaves the next morning, she tells him that she is visiting relatives in the country and will return one week later and stay another night.

There are barely more than a half a dozen rooms in the hotel, but in the days after the woman departs, Zebercet (the name for a semi-precious jewel) does not rent out the room she slept in. Instead, he sleeps in the bed where she has been, leaving the sheets unchanged, masturbates repeatedly, and fondles the sweater and towel she left behind. He’s obsessed with her and convinces himself that once she returns, she will be as interested in him as he is in her. He even shaves off his mustache and purchases new clothing so he will look his best when she returns. Fixated on the woman, he imagines them engaged sexually.

As you may have guessed, the woman does not return, and Zebercet begins to act increasingly irrational. There’s a murder. Zebercet closes the hotel and spends increasing amounts of time in the town. That is quite a change for him because managing the hotel has been a full-time occupation. He rarely even had time to walk the streets of the town, let alone eat in restaurants, go to the cinema, etc. He becomes interested in a boy whom he hopes to lure to the hotel. His thoughts juxtapose incidents from the present and the past in prose that becomes increasingly confusing. This is part of a sentence from early in the narration before the later confusion becomes overwhelming: “…that night he had brought her six could I have some tea she’d asked and he had brewed it in the three-serving pot then tray in hand had knocked come in she sat there on the edge of the bed coat off black sweater necklace of large silver balls she’d looked it’s good of you and asked how to reach that village then wake me at eight casually saying she carried no ID.”

The brief introduction to the book, written by the translator, states that “As a precise study in mental disturbance it was for a time required reading for psychiatry students in Ankara’s major hospital-university complex.” Intriguing, for certain, prompting me to ponder the status of the book in Erdogan’s repressive Turkey.

Yusuf Atilgan: Motherland Hotel
Trans. by Fred Stark
City Lights, 148 pp., $15.95

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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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