Swans Commentary » swans.com January 1, 2007  



The Turkish Man Mountain


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Atasu, Erendiz: The Other Side of the Mountain, Milit Publishing Co., London, 2000, 1st English edition, ISBN 1 84059 113 7, 286 pages, Remzi Kitabevi, Turkey, 1996, 1st Turkish edition. Translated by Erendiz Atasu and Elizabeth Maslen.


(Swans - January 1, 2007)  When a sharp look into an enigmatic country finds literary expression, sell-by dates have no relevance. Erendiz Atasu teaches science in Ankara and writes on feminism. The Other Side of the Mountain, ably translated, is her first novel. She recalls in a Letter to the Reader:

[There are]...three great people whose influence on my heart and mind resonate through this book: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose being supplied the sap which has sustained my country's life; that major poet, Nazim Hikmet; and the major writer Virginia Woolf....

In other words Atasu has set herself the task of squaring several Turkish circles. There is no room in Woolf's feminism for an idolized paternal figure like Ataturk. The English writer conceived of the novel as a mosaic, little concerned with linear narration or straightforward chronology. The inner life of Woolf's characters, their saturation in memory, together with the writer's stylistic bravura, manage to meld disparate elements together. Woolf moreover tapped into a formidable intellectual tradition that meant in writing a novel she didn't first of all have to clear land for cultivation. She could start with a rose bed. The same formal model in Atasu's hands breaks down in the tumult of her raw material, the jagged and undigested history of Turkey in the 20th century. Circle one to be squared: Virginia Woolf and Turkey.

The importance of the poet Nazim Hikmet for modern Turkish literature can't be exaggerated. He brought the country's poetry brilliantly into modern times without resorting to obscurity or separating it from ordinary life. Because of his immense role Turks tend to consider him apart from the actual decisions he made in life and from his politics. They see Ataturk in a similar way. It's as if figures of such dimensions have left behind the beliefs that motivated them and the earthly deeds they performed, and now inhabit the Elysium of immortal and abstract heroes. But Nazim Hikmet was an upper class Istanbullu who made sure he wasn't bogged down in Ataturk's "revolution" and hurried off to Moscow in the midst of it. Bolshevism was inevitably outlawed in Turkey -- Russia had always been the enemy par excellence -- and the Communist Hikmet would spend years in Turkish jails -- the jails of Ataturk's Republic. He fled the country for the Soviet Union in 1951 and never returned. Circle two to square: the Communist Hikmet and the Kemalist republican Ataturk.

But the continuing presence of Ataturk himself in Turkey remains the greatest obstacle to any hope of circle squaring. He still stands huge and hardened into stone by the military regime he founded and that depends on his historical charisma for its survival. Outsiders see Ataturk as an exceptional strategist who cut the losses of empire, fixed reasonable boundaries to a new republic and defended it brilliantly against the onslaught of the western powers. But the same outsiders are not so sure about his subsequent civil reforms. Turks, after eighty-some years of propaganda, are conditioned to see him as a supernatural being and a personification of the monolithic state the nationalists would like to inhabit.

The novel tells the tale of three generations. As the reader advances, he's sure that the author's description of female adoration of the "sensitive" patriarchal figure will be deflated by 21st century feminist irony. (Italian history buffs will recall Italian women's soft spot for Mussolini.) But the author's alter ego is as starry-eyed and man-intoxicated about Ataturk as her grandmother and mother! At the same time Atasu paints relationships between women in real depth. She is just as acute when she speaks through a male character. We can only conclude that clear thinking in Turkey will be difficult until Ataturk is brought back to a human scale.

But nothing is proving harder. I recently met an Istanbul high school teacher in an Italian art city. It was his first trip out of Turkey. He was astounded by the fact that Italian statuary depicted so many different people and not just one person. I thought of the museum attached to Ataturk's mausoleum in Ankara where you can see, lovingly preserved and labeled, ash from one of his cigarettes. The next time I checked the news from Turkey I found that Atilla Yayla, a professor of political thought at Gazi University, had been suspended by the rector for remarks made at a conference in Izmir. He'd dared to refer to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as "this man," to Ataturk's era as one of "regression" and to the omnipresence of his effigy as "undemocratic." Osman Yilmaz, representing a network of Kemalist youth organizations, demanded Yayla's dismissal, saying, "Nobody can hide behind freedom of expression to promote hostility against Ataturk." We smile, but inside Turkey it's harder to laugh off this kind of obscurantism. In one of her books the journalist Ipek Calislar repeated an anecdote that had Ataturk escaping from would-be assassins in 1923 by dressing up as a woman complete with black chador. Now Calislar and the newspaper that first mentioned her book have been formally charged with insulting the father of their country.

Despite the confusion Atasu has brought on herself by the ill-assorted heroes she venerates, The Other Side of the Mountain is a valuable fictional entry into one area of Turkish life. It traces the history of republican idealism as it gradually dims and finally disintegrates into the insecure military clique that tries to play the supreme arbiter in the country today. However, the reader should be warned. Though the novel covers the period from before WWI till the 1990s, it deals exclusively with republicans, fervent or gone tepid. The list of characters Atasu prefaces her story with is simply entitled "The Kemalists." For 286 pages, as history bears down on them, we will learn of their changing relationships, their probing of one another's character, and the shifts of their politics. The illusion created is that they somehow are Turkey. The teeming vitality of the country, its multitude of ethnic groups, its masses that knew no more of Kemalism than the icon of Ataturk that had been forced upon them, are all absent.

Given the mosaicist's approach to storytelling employed by Atasu, the reader might need this simple storyline: Fitnat Hanim will lose her elderly husband, a former Ottoman officer, when the Greek army overruns her new western Anatolian home. In the Balkan War she had already been displaced from Salonika where her family property had been seized. She will suffer the rigors of the War of Independence -- a trying time for all Turks -- but nevertheless succeeds in educating her three children. The girl Vicdan profits from Ataturk's policy of sending young women abroad on scholarships. She will develop into a stalwart and dutiful Kemalist teacher and scholar. The boys Burhan and Reha will become army officers.

All the characters will be defined by their attitude toward Ataturk. Fitnat Hanim views him with awe but feels her daughter should solicit help for the family when she's called for an interview. Vicdan refuses to broach any but unselfish national topics with the great man. She will marry Raik, a teacher and ex-soldier who shares her exalted views. They alone will maintain their elitist principles tinged with Puritanism as the country, uninterested in the lesson they wish to teach, grows away from them. Burhan an enthusiastic Kemalist in his youth leaves the army to become a money grubbing lawyer. His older brother Reha is so emotionally perturbed he can't fix his attention on Ataturk and ends a suicide. Fitnat Hanim has remarried and given birth to another son, Cumhur, who becomes a soldier and shares the Kemalist views of his half-sister.

Though Turkey maintained neutrality in WWII, it was a very austere and anguish ridden period for Turks. For hard-line Kemalists like Vicdan and Raik, participation in the Korean War was a shameful episode. Had not Ataturk allowed for war only in defense of the homeland? The couple was repelled by the dominance of a new commercial class in the years that followed. Significantly, they lumped this evil together with a rise in regionalism and the acceptance of local accents. The military's illusion of a homogenous population that all spoke and thought alike never left the aging idealists. It had of course been a position adopted by Ataturk when minority groups on the borders threatened to tear the young republic apart ("fragmentation").

Atasu intervenes throughout as narrator in the guise of Vicdan's daughter, a scientist. She has dissected the childhood of her uncles to explain the boorish materialism of one and the suicide of the other. Now she doesn't spare her aged mother a face-to-face analysis that explains how Vicdan has never been in touch with her own body. That's why, on the verge of the third millennium, we are startled to find this narrator, a feminist, scientist, and littérateur, still infatuated like a schoolgirl with Ataturk. She cites her "respect, admiration and love" for the individual Turks can still infringe the law by simply calling "this man."


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art13/pbyrne24.html
Published January 1, 2007