Burhan Sönmez’s magnificent new novel, Istanbul Istanbul (Speaking Tiger India), is about spaces, both interior and exterior. It is the story of four prisoners in an underground cell of a torture centre, meant primarily for political prisoners. When they are not being tortured, the four tell each other stories about Istanbul to pass the time. Right at the very beginning, one of the four prisoners in the novel, says, “Istanbul was a city of a million cells and every cell was an Istanbul unto itself.” The statement echoes through the novel, inviting readers to understand the notion of a city as a multiplicity of spaces.
Born in central Anatolia in 1965, Sönmez grew up speaking Kurdish and Turkish, and moved to Istanbul at the age of 17 to study law. “I come from a small Kurdish village in central Turkey. My mother tongue is Kurdish but I write in Turkish, because Kurdish language has been forbidden in school education and official institutions. Here, everyone is born in provincial regions but ends up living in Istanbul,” he says.
How much of being a Kurd feeds into his imagination, and why does that imagination find place in Istanbul? “Istanbul Istanbul is my third novel. Every writer in Turkey, sooner or later, writes about Istanbul. When I published my first and second novel, people would ask me whether I had something to write about Istanbul. It is a kind of destiny you were born with,” he says.
Istanbul Istanbul deals with the idea that a city like Istanbul can never have a monolithic identity, but is a coagulation of multiple imaginings, both living and dead. In one harrowing scene, after the three characters finish telling a story, the locked iron grille is suddenly opened, and two guards drag in another prisoner, his body bearing signs of brutal torture. The author muses, “cities were built on the ruins of old cities, while the dead were buried in the soil of the old dead. Istanbul breathed in unison with the underground cells where we lived, while our skin bore the odour of the dead. The wreckage of old cities and the people of old was stamped on our minds.”
As a human rights lawyer, Sönmez was detained by the police. The novel, therefore, is informed by his experience of being severely assaulted and subsequently imprisoned by the police for his political dissidence in 1996. In confinement, he and his prison mates would tell each other stories to pass the time. Sönmez then moved to Britain, where he underwent treatment in London with the support of Medical Foundation of Treatment for the Victims of Torture. Unable to practice law anymore, he took up writing. His first novel, North, was published in 2009 and his second, Sins & Innocents, in 2011.
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The subject of the novel might be grim but the stories told by the prisoners, which form the bulk of the novel, are anything but. Much like The Decameron, the book by the 14th century Italian author, Giovanni Boccaccio, which has influenced Sönmez the most and the structure of which he imitates in Istanbul Istanbul, the stories here are often bawdy and laced with humour.
Humour, Sönmez says, becomes a sign of resistance, especially when speech and the freedom to think is restricted. The novel explores this idea of art as both resistance and redemption. In the light of the recent coup attempt in Turkey, and subsequently, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s brutal subjugation of the same — in such a politically fraught time — what is the role of art? “In our region and also in the Middle East, in some parts of Africa or even India (and I have been following the news in India), the tyrannical tendencies are getting more powerful while people need more freedom and equality,” Sönmez says, “In that case, what can art do? The first thing is, we should not obey the supremacy of politics. Art is slow-moving, it speaks with a low sound, but it is persistent. It works long term, and, hence, exceptionally, sometimes has immediate effect. Because writers dig [into] the soul of individuals, social groups, and systems. Digging and taking a mine out is a matter of time and permanency. That’s our power.” And that is why, he adds, art and artists are silenced the most.
This question of freedom of thought and expression in Turkey brings us inevitably to the work of the other great Turkish writer. Orhan Pamuk’s novels are an important point of comparison with that of Sönmez’s, also because Pamuk was also tried in the court of law for his remarks on the Armenian genocide in 2005. How different, then, is Sönmez’s approach with that of Pamuk’s, in terms of chronicling Istanbul? “We have a very strong tradition of art about Istanbul, including novels, poetry, movies, plays, songs etc,” Sönmez says. “Pamuk did something great by internationalising it with his own flavour. We, in our traditional and contemporary novels, see Istanbul as the place of two different times: one is the past, and the other is the present.”
That allows writers to see the past and present as two worlds. “In my novel, I wanted to divide space, rather than time. Putting my characters in a prison cell three floors underground gives them only one direction, which is upwards. It is a place of pain while there is another Istanbul over ground which is the place of pleasure, energy and chaos. It gave me, or my characters, an opportunity of uniting time. For my characters there is no past or future, all are united in ‘now’. That was a great technique applied by modern novelists like Virgina Woolf, and James Joyce. In Turkey, this tradition is stronger in our poetry and short stories than in our novel,” he says.
Towards the end of the novel, a character reminisces how his father had described Istanbul to him when he was just a boy: “My father used to say that Istanbul created a different city every season, that she gave birth to other cities in the dark, in the snow and the fog. On a hot summer’s day he once saw a group of students sitting in a row…painting. …No two paintings were the same…The canvases were not depicting the same city, but all kinds of very different cities, separated by several eras and great distances.”
As Sönmez says, at the heart of this book lies his life-long preoccupation in understanding the multiplicities of identity, like the many faces of Istanbul. Its many layers of meaning and the beauty of Istanbul Istanbul’s prose will ensure the novel becomes a contemporary classic.