by Peter Byrne
Farhi, Moris: Young Turk, Arcade Publishing, 2005, ISBN 155970764 X, 392 pages.
In UK, Saqui Books, 2004, ISBN 0-86356-861-0 (hb), ISBN 0-86356-351-1 (pb), 392 pages.
(Swans - November 6, 2006) Rifat is on the innocent side of puberty in Istanbul at the end of the 1930s. Ataturk has been consecrated as savior of the nation. The idea of Turkey as an ethnic monolith has been planted but its foliage has not yet obscured the evidence of the senses. Rifat's neighborhood is a crazy quilt of various peoples getting along together. The New Turkey exists not too uncomfortably with the old, myth and magic making room for official Westernizing Puritanism. A Turkmen, the local fount of traditional wisdom, tells the boy, who is preparing for his Moslem circumcision ceremony, that the penis is "the key to heaven (p. 13)." All the same, women seem to keep the neighborhood going. Rifat's mentor is Gul, an older girl with powers of clairvoyance. She's Jewish, with brothers, and knowing in circumcision lore. Rifat's miffed when she calls him a Donme. He assures her that his distant forebears may have been these 17th century insincere converts, but that his parents chose the Moslem faith freely. In a letter to Gul he outlines the not so small virtues of the Moslem circumcision: A boy's a man as soon as the knife draws blood, and he doesn't have to wait around for any bar mitzvah.
So begins Moris Farhi's Young Turk, a novel told by a baker's dozen of friends and acquaintances in the Turkey of the first decades of the republic. Each voice bears witness to the complexities and richness of a mixed population as Turkish nationalism and world events impinge upon it. The freshness of this historical fresco comes from its being built on the perplexity of children awakening to the sensual delights of life. The intertwining of death and desire, defeat and joy lifts the story above the run-of-the mill European or American novel. Farhi, a Turk of Jewish provenance, lives in London and writes in English. Born in 1935, he has published four other books and is a vice president of International PEN. His distance from Turkey seems only to have intensified his feeling for its life.
Musa grew up in Ankara. His childhood was illuminated by trips with his Armenian nanny to the women's baths. He and his friend Selim acquire fundamental knowledge of the female sphere before the experienced mistress of the "hamas" bars the boys because their keys to heaven have grown enough to open locks. Robbie, son of a British official, steals passports to help his Turkish friends save members of their Jewish family trapped in Salonica. The Greek city, thanks to Bulgarian occupation, German pressure, and local collaboration, began sending its huge Jewish population to Auschwitz in 1943. The adolescents' plan fails tragically. This is a novel about children, not a children's book.
Selma, a Jewish schoolgirl in Istanbul, feels the racism engendered by WWII. She's called a half-Turk by her nationalist teacher. Turkey's neutrality doesn't exclude factions gambling on a German victory. The Varlik law has been enacted against non-Muslim minorities. Ataturk is dead. The concept of Turkishness as constituted by a shared language and culture falls by the wayside. Jews, Armenians and Greeks are forced out of business by extreme taxation. Labor camps are set up for those who can't pay. In March 1944, under foreign pressure and intimations that Germany may not be a sure bet, the Varlik law was rescinded.
Bilal will perish in the quixotic attempt to bring the passports to Salonica. He leaves some written musings about the Sephardi and their long involvement with the Ottoman reign. He accepts an opinion that might surprise Westerners: "Most Jews who have lived under Islam will admit, if they are honest, that, over the centuries, Elohim and Allah have become interchangeable -- a solid journeyman who dresses now in a turban, now in a skull cap (p. 136)." Bilal's doom seems foretold in the stormy marriage of his incompatible parents. He glories in his father's tale of personal service to a mythic Ataturk in the War of Independence. We learn that minorities, including Armenians, served in the army, being especially useful because more likely to be literate.
In 1947, two years after the war, Yusef, at thirteen, travels alone to Marseilles by ship. A troubled woman takes him in charge, and he soon covets her as a second mother, his own -- a typical Farhi touch -- being uncomfortable in her maternal role. During the trip, the boy begins to be a man while seeing the woman through the difficult task of retrieving her husband from an insane asylum. Yusef's sentiments have been thoroughly selfish, while the woman hasn't scrupled to make use of him as a substitute for her dead son. Intense feelings have been exchanged, but as between two sleepwalkers.
Hava, a girl of sixteen, is an apprentice juggler. A foundling adopted by a circus wrestler and his wife, she becomes obsessed with saving a Caucasian trapeze artist. He has taken to drink out of guilt after the death in a fall of his male circus partner. The wrestler guru, whose sport has spiritual overtones in Turkey, will extract the guilty secret that the survivor had objected to his dead partner's "dishonest" touch. Employing do-or-die means, the gentle-giant wrestler gets the traumatized artist back on the trapeze. Hava will marry him, aware that their intimacy will be shared with her bridegroom's new aerial collaborator.
Mustafa, fourteen, is part of his overbearing but endearing teacher's experiment to embody Turkey's diversity in a college dormitory:
In effect, we twenty-four boys represented almost the full spectrum of Turkey's demographic cocktail: Abkhaz, Albanian, Alevi, Armenian, Azeri, Bosnian, Circassian, Donme, Georgian, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Karait, Kurd, Laz, Levantine, Nusairi Arab, Pomak, Pontos, Russian (White Russian, to give their preferred appellation), Suryani (also known as Assyrians), Tatar, Turk and Yezidi (p. 234).
While the teacher extols the poems of the great Nazim Hikmet, a mysterious visitor to the college neighborhood extends the teaching of the Communist poet. This "houri" with a Studebaker, who draws on a cigarette "like Rita Hayworth" and dresses in black "like Juliette Greco," dispenses sex with egalitarian impartiality to the dormitory boys, but forbids un-socialist jealousy and possessiveness. The dormitory harmony cracks with the strain as the thirteenth boy has his turn. Local bigots drive the visitor away despite the teacher's defense of her. When the dormitory is disbanded, Mustafa misses it less than his departed initiatrix, but becomes aware that he has "... attained the wisdom of experience and developed a heart where every visitor could sign his or her name (p. 261)."
Atilla spends his adolescence in that peculiar dimension of Istanbul that is melancholy. His family decimated, he finds another in a Romanian restaurateur and his "Kabadayt," a legendary Turkish Mafioso of the solitary drifter and Robin Hood variety. But yet another disaster chases Atilla from the sad city. Another boy, Zeki, decides at twelve to be a writer and becomes devoted to Nazim Hikmet. When Nazim is released from prison in 1950, and persecution of him continues, Zeki plays a role in his escape from Turkey. Then, not unlike Farhi, he goes into exile himself.
Aslan mourns his friend who finally died of cancer after various misfortunes, including service in the Korean War. The authorities had imprisoned him for his promotion of Kurdish rights and world government. His lover, a matchmaker, had been rendered unfit by her profession to marry and make him happy. She passes, rather brusquely, from daily life into legend. The two realms are never far apart for the author.
Davut, writing a thesis in England, returns to Istanbul where he's harried by the authorities. His former teacher, the organizer of the multiethnic dormitory, now broken by torture and prison, urges Davut to flee into exile. The young man's lover can't bring herself to follow. The subject of his thesis is apropos: "... how the Turks' innate nobility tempered with the best of Islamic teaching made them the most tolerant people in the world, while the plethora of complexes instilled by the worst of Islamic teaching could -- and sometimes did -- turn them into ogres (p. 367)." The novel closes with a letter from the teacher to all his students. He's dying, but as always in Young Turk death wears the raiment of physical love and leaves time for the teacher to utter his pluralist testament: "True Turkishness means rejoicing in the infinite plurality of people as we rejoice in the infinite multiplicity of nature (p. 386)."
Disjointed for a novel, Young Turk most effectively portrays adolescence in a tumultuous epoch. The eternal drives of youth are colored with the idealism that Ataturk brought. But the regime that sprang from him proves narrowing and ungenerous, too often brutal. Moris Farhi misses what he thinks of as the rough tolerance of Ottoman Turkey and signals underlying realities that haven't changed despite the simplistic vision imposed by an insecure nationalism. The insistent presence of sex among these weighty themes initially disconcerts. But we soon understand that the surprise comes from our own limitations. If their bodies weren't firmly anchored physically, these children of the storm couldn't keep up their hopes under the assault of history and loss.
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