A Different Hi(story)
© Seçil Yaylali

Contemporary Turkish Literature and the New Historical Novel

An essay by Petr Kucera

Translated from the German by Chantal Wright

Many critics have characterised the last four years in Turkish literature as the golden age of the novel and the end of the short story.  Although claims such as these often seem sweeping, statistics confirm that this has in fact been the trend: in the last two years alone, an average of a novel a day was published in Turkey (not including translations) and this figure continues to rise. A. Ömer Türkes' quantative analysis of novel production shows that, for the year 2006, the majority of the 350 novels published were about relationships between men and women, but that there were also 75 historical novels and 60 novels that might be described as 'nationalist' or 'Islamist', and the novels in this latter category groups often took (Turkish) history as their theme. The immense popularity of Turgut Özakman's bestsellers Su Çilgin Türkler (These Crazy Turks, 2005) and Dirilis-Çanakkale 1915 (Gallipoli 1915. A Resurrection, 2008), populist-nationalist portrayals of the Turkish War of Independence and the Battle of Gallipoli, clearly show that novels with a historical theme attract a wide audience, just as they do in Europe.  This article will discuss several contemporary novels that take a new approach to Turkish history, and place them in the context of Turkish literary history.

Turkish literature and the historical novel

In contrast to the West, where the historical novel established itself as a prolific genre at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the work of Walter Scott, in Turkey the genre did not enjoy much standing until the 1980s. In the pre-Republic era, historical novels were rare (Namik Kemal's Cezmi from 1880, and occasional texts by Ahmet Midhat are among the few), perhaps because writers preferred to engage with more urgent contemporary social and political problems such as the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Westernisation of society.  Following the founding of the Republic (1923), the ruling Kemalist elite adopted a critical stance towards Ottoman history. The new, Western-oriented, secular Republic had little interest in identifying with what it considered to be the “reactionary” and “oriental” Ottoman-Islamic past.  For this reason it strove to create a new nationalist history which emphasised the pre-Islamic roots of Turkish history and tried to establish Turkey's European identity.  There are several novels from this period that develop the connection between ancient civilisations (the Sumerians and the Hittites, and later Hellenic culture as well) and the Turks.

The great exception to this was always “trivial” literature: adventure books that were printed en masse, in cheap editions with colourful covers. Between the 1920s and 1960s, authors such as Abdullah Ziya Kozanoglu, Turhan Tan, Resad Ekram Koçu, Nihal Atsiz and M. Necati Septçioglu wrote dozens of popular 'pulp' novels focussing on the Ottoman history that had been banished from official discourse. The so-called 'Islamist novel', which formed a counter-discourse to Kemalist ideology, was another exception. In these novels, Ottoman-Islamic history was always present, even if only rudimentarily, as a nostalgic memory of an ideal period in history. The two genres were ignored by literary critics and did not feature in serious discussions about the past. There were two main reasons for this: the first was the novels' lack of 'literariness' and their market-oriented nature; the second, their marginalisation and the fact of their largely illegal distribution.

It was only in the 1960s, with the arrival of Kemal Tahir (1910-1973), that the historical novel achieved a position of note on the Turkish literary scene.  Novels such as Devlet Ana (Mother State, 1967), which portrays the origins of the Ottoman Empire, served Tahir as a means to showcase his idiosyncratic view of Turkey's social and historical development (he drew primarily on Marxist theses of the formation of social classes and the “Asiatic mode of production”, but re-evaluated these in a positive light for Ottoman history). His novels are stylistically and linguistically finely hewn and extremely readable. At the time of their publication, however, they did not find any contemporaries and it was to be a long time before they would find any successors.

The transformation of the historical novel in the 1990s

In contemporary Turkish literature, as is the case in Euro-American literature, the historical novel is a prolific genre and probably also one of the most progressive. The rise of the genre in Turkey dates back roughly to the late 1980s.  It was only in the 1990s, however, that there was an explosion of historical themes, permitting one to speak now of a 'mass production' of historical novels, beginning with trivial literature through to the Islamist novel, and on to challenging, narratively complex works.

What are the reasons for this explosion?  Translations of historical novels into Turkish certainly had a great influence, from popular historical mysteries (one of the bestselling books in Turkey today is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code) to postmodern works that draw on historical material (Umberto Eco, Jorge Borges, Gabriel García Marquéz, Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie, John Fowles). Nonetheless, both the positive reception enjoyed by these books and the improved status accorded historical themes enjoyed were dependent on changing conditions in Turkey. For the most part, these conditions were created post-1980. The stormy 1960s and 1970s were followed by the military putsch of 1980, which went hand-in-hand with a de-politicisation of society. Works that engaged with social and political themes (such as the 'Anatolian novel' or socialist realist texts) took a step back, opening up a space for alternatives.  Other important factors were the re-assessment of Ottoman history in domestic and foreign historiography, as well as the slow rise of political Islam, which was naturally pre-destined towards a positive portrayal of Ottoman-Islamic history.

I would argue that two main movements crystallised in this historical boom: an extensive series of novels that tend towards 'classical' (realist) form and content in their portrayal of history, much in the style of the realist mode of writing that was dominant in Turkey into the 1980s; and a growing number of novels that can best be described as 'postmodern' or 'innovative'.

The authors who belong to the first of the two movements share a perception of history that is founded on a mimetic relationship to the world. This relationship assumes that a particular event represented through the medium of fiction exists independently of its portrayal, in other words that there is a real, extra-linguistic field of 'history' that occurred logically and temporally before its portrayal (cf. Ansgar Nünning's Von historischer Fiktion zu historiographischer Metafiktion, 1995). An actual historical structure is concealed behind a series of documents, facts, narratives etc., a history that is logically and chronologically ordered and has an internal purpose: the task of the writer is to portray this structure as best he or she can. The fiction of the novel should therefore be a mimesis, a copying of reality. Although these novels are not innovative alternatives to the usual portrayal of history, many of them, such as Yasar Kemal's tetralogy Bir Ada Hikayesi (The Story of an Island, 1997-2002), Ahmet Aziz's Triumvira (Triumvirate, 2006) and Osman Necmi Güner's Râna (Râna, 2006), have contributed to a new account of Turkish history.

At the other end of the spectrum we find the category that Hans Vilmar Geppert describes as the “other” historical novel and for which the expression the “postmodern historical novel” (Linda Hutcheon) is now more typically used. This type of novel fundamentally rejects the mimetic principle of traditional novels and upsets the relationship between fiction and reality. Works such as these discuss, either indirectly or on a meta-level, the question of whether history can be meaningfully portrayed and of how history is created and made coherent.

Orhan Pamuk's Beyaz Kale (The White Castle, 1985) is one of the pioneers of the latter genre. The novel uses the historical backdrop of the seventeenth century as a forum to discuss national identity and the relativity or interchangeability of historical experience. These questions are often transformed into a game, however, where all binary oppositions (East-West, reality-fiction, writing-life) dissipate, and ontological questions lose their gravity.

We find a similar approach to history in Orhan Pamuk's second historical novel Benim Adim Kirmizi (My Name is Red, 1998). Once again the “poetic reconstruction of history” (Priska Furrer) is not brokered directly by means of meta-historiographic reflection, but presented to the reader as an integral, implicit part of the plot. One of the most dominant features of the portrayal of history in Benim Adim Kirmizi is its plurality. No one narrator presides, instead we are presented with a plethora of contradictory voices.  This polyphony hinders the creation of a closed and seamless history. We are left with fragments that are insurmountably contradictory, decentralised and equipollent.

Historiographic questions are discussed directly in Nedim Gürsel's Bogazkesen (1995; the title refers to the Rumeli Hisari fortress on the Bosphorus, but also translates as 'throat-cutting'). Gürsel's historical material is the life of Sultan Mehmet Fatih and the events surrounding the conquest of Constantinople (1453), from which Gürsel's alter ego, the writer Fatih Haznedar, attempts a multilayered portrayal of Mehmet II and the conquest of the city. The novel takes place on two levels – we are shown the historical events surrounding the siege of Constantinople, and at the same time we follow the personal story of Haznedar, who is narrating these events. Thus, from the very beginning, the whole story is raised to a meta-fictional level, from where we can observe the subject-dependent 'creation of history'. The heroic history of the school textbook is constantly relativised and contrasted with numerous other 'histories'.

Among the most recent crop of new historical novels, Ihsan Oktay Anar's novels are worthy of particular mention: Puslu Kitalar Atlasi (The Atlas of Murky Continents, 1995), Kitab ül-Hiyel (The Book of Mechanics, 1996), Efrasiyabin Hikayeleri (Efrasiyab's Stories, 1998), Amat (2005) and Suskunlar (The Silent Ones, 2007). In his texts, Anar leaves behind the 'safe' ground of normal history in inimitable fashion, transforming history into a fantasy tale in which parody becomes the basic principle of writing, and where it is 'real' history rather than fiction that appears unreal and strange. His novels concentrate on the marginalised groups forgotten by 'official' history, groups who had no chance of penetrating the communication channels of the dominant culture. In Puslu Kitalar Atlasi and Efrasiyabin Hikayeleri we are introduced to the “Guild of the Ditchdiggers”, to beggars, to a children's army, which - in the shadow of the real imperial army - is carrying out successful missions against an enemy school and against toy shops, to the milieu of cheating gamblers, daydreamers, thieves; in Kitab ül-Hiyel to the workshops of secret alchemists and inventors; and in Amat to a ship that is sailing on the Mediterranean with no direction or aim.

Ahmet Sipahioglu, in contrast, remains, at least from the outside, on the level of “serious” history writing. His novel 1929. Bir Yilin Oeykü (1929. The History of a Year, 1997) is a colourful collage of various documents from the year 1929 – newspaper articles, pictures from fashion magazines, love letters, weather forecasts, advertisements, diary entries, classified ads, sheet music, photographs etc. These quasi-real documents and facts are, however, largely made-up, parodied or at the very least ironised, and are presented by Sipahioglu in a crazy jumble. By doing this he demonstrates the extent to which sequencing and transmission into a coherent 'history' is dependent on the subject who makes the selection and decides which document is 'important' and which document 'insignificant', which one 'credible' and which one 'wrong'.

Non-Turkish minorities

It is pleasing to see that among the current explosion of historical novels in Turkey, non-nationalist, alternative views of the role of minorities in Turkish history feature alongside the many examples of nationalist literature.

Armenian-Turkish relations and the tabooisation of history constitute the theme of Elif Safak's Baba ve Piç (The Bastard of Istanbul). This novel, which was accused of “spreading ethnic hatred of Turks”, intertwines the stories of two Istanbul families - the Turkish Kazancis and the Armenian Çakmakçiyans, whose destinies cross by chance in the USA - over a period of 90 years: Mustafa Kazanci marries an American who is separated from her Armenian husband, who comes from the Çakmakçiyan family. On her twenty-first birthday, Mustafa's stepdaughter Armanus decides to research the family background of both her fathers, thus slowly discovering the tragic history that exists between Turks and Armenians.

Ilhan Eksen offers a critical view of official history and of the xenophobia felt by non-Muslim minorities in Turkey in his novel Istanbul Sende Kalsin (Keep Istanbul for Yourself, 2007).  The novel takes place in the 1960s and describes the unhappy love between Orhan, a young student, and Tusala, a Greek Turk, who is forced to leave Turkey with the last wave of Greek refugees in 1967 because of the growing enmity between Turks and Greeks. The text is a lament for the irretrievable loss of Istanbul's multi-ethnic character; the city is depicted as spiritually empty following the departure of its minorities.

The sad story of Turkish Greeks is also the subject of Yasar Kemal's outstanding tetralogy Bir Ada Kikayesi (The Story of an Island, 1997 – 2002; three volumes have been published to date). The novel portrays the lives of Turks and Greeks on an island in the Aegean Sea following the tragic population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s.

The Kurdish question and the role of Kurds in Turkish history has been a marginal topic in Turkish literature thus far, but even here there have been several critically well-received titles. Last year, for example, Murat Uyurkulak published his second novel, which bore the provocative Turkish-Kurdish title Har (Kurdish: “rabid”; Turkish: “glowing”), and the subtitle Bir Kiyamet Romani (The Novel of Judgement Day). This is not so much a historical novel as a fantasy tale that presents an ironic and bitter history of modern Turkey (referred to in the novel as "Netamiye": 'Incompleteland'), caught up in a civil war between West and East, the latter populated by "Xirbos".

Although the significance of the 'new' historical novel should not be overstated, it is clear from the contents of this article that the narrative processing of history in these works has contributed to the establishment of a self-reflexive, critical awareness of the historical experience of the nation, forcing the reader to reflect on the roots of his or her cultural identity, while at the same time attempting to reintegrate into that identity those elements that have been suppressed by the official ideology.

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