ESSAY: Reading Barış Bıçakçı

Reading Barış Bıçakçı, by Annika Svanstrohm
This summer, the fourth workshop or translators of Turkish literature into English was organized at Cunda near Ayvalik by Professor Saliha Paker and her colleagues with the economic support of the Ministry of Culture. It is an excellent opportunity to introduce new writers to an international audience. Between 1 and 10 June, almost 20 translators met at the idyllic village and, for a few days, the writer Behçet Çelik participated in the workshop. During daytime participants either work on their own translations or contribute to joint projects. In the evenings they are invited to give talks related to their work. The only Swedish participant in the workshop, Annika Svahnström, chose to talk about Barış Bıçakçı.

A Turkish critic has pointed at similarities between the young writer Barış Bıçakçı and Raymond Carver, the American minimalist short story writer of the 1970s. Robert Altman, who based the film Short Cuts on Carver’s stories, made some comments which also apply to Bıçakçı. Altman writes that “(he) made poetry out of the prosaic and revealed the strangeness behind the banal. His stories are about what you don’t know rather than about what you do know, and the reader fills in the gaps while recognizing the undercurrents.”

However, Bıçakçı is unmistakably a Turkish writer and his sensibility - and his unobtrusive sense of humour – are Turkish. Many of his stories are about what we talk about when we talk about other things. While Carver’s minimalism is sometimes characterized as “dirty,” there is nothing “dirty” about Bıçakçı, but rather an almost childish innocence. Bıçakçı also brings to mind another American writer, J. D. Salinger, who left behind some classic portraits of adolescents. In one of Bıçakçı’s collections of short texts, his characters are children and young people. His way of depicting them is unsentimental, and the close relations between siblings might remind you of those of Holden Caulfield and his little sister or of Franny and Zooey. Bıçakçı shares another characteristic with the American – an almost legendary shyness. He never figures in media, nor does he sign his books in the bookstores or take parts in panels.

Bıçakçı was born in Adana in 1966 and educated in Ankara, where he still lives today. He was too young to be involved in the political turmoil of the 1970s and 80s. At times, that era is referred to in his works by a character’s mother or father, who experienced it. Bıçakçı himself belongs to the post-1980 generation and his sympathies seem to lie with those of the nature loving character Abidin, leaves Ankara with his wife and young child to settle in a village by the Black Sea, in his novels, Bir Süre Yere Paralel Gittikten Sonra (After Gliding Parallel to the Earth for Some Time).

Bıçakçı made his debut in the 1990s, with two poetry books. His first novel was published in 2000 – Herkes Herkesle Dostmus Gibi (As if We’re All Friends), a rather crowded “family photo” of a group of young people in Ankara from the end of the last century. Since then, five slim volumes have followed, each between 100 and 160 pages. In his short texts, Bıçakçı manages to confer to Ankara, the most prosaic of cities, a poetic light.

In Aramizdaki en Kisa Mesafe (The Shortest Distance Between Us, 2003) we get to know five rather diverse people with the same surname – a family with three young sons. The father, a university professor of philosophy, has lost his job after one of the military coups, and now the family is joining forces to survive. However, business is not their strength. After failing in their endeavour to sell old keyrings in the market, someone in the family gets the idea to make “boza,” a popular wintertime drink made of fermented millet, and try to sell in the streets. "'It was back after the military coup when my father’d shut himself up in the house, We were having trouble making ends meet, and so as a family we tried our hands at a few schemes to make money. We failed. We were only able to sell a single glass of boza, remember?’ my big brother asked. ‘How could I forget!’ I said. ‘The guy who bought the boza complained that it was too cold. He asked us if we kept it in the refrigerator. We were embarrassed, as if it was wrong to keep the stuff in the refrigerator, and we answered, ‘No.’ " (p. 97). The essentially sad text is shot through with beams of humour.

Bizim Büyük Çaresizliğimiz (Our Great Desperation, 2004) introduces to us two middle aged bachelors who have been entrusted with the care of the young sister of a friend. Her parents have died in a traffic accident and her brother himself is in the States. She is going to finish school in Ankara and will then join him there. The two friends, Ender and Çetin, are moving and unconsciously funny in their efforts to make the carefree Nihal feel comfortable. Years afterwards, Ender reminds Çetin: “One night when Nihal went to bed early, the two of us met in your room and talked about our bathroom manners. And together we decided: No more peeing in the bathroom toilet standing up! From now on, we put down the seat and pee sitting down. We thought it would be unpleasant for Nihan to have to see pee stains on the edges of the toilet bowl.’ (p.32). The unavoidable happens – they both fall in love with her, whereas she gets pregnant with a class mate her own age. The two friends, Ender and Çetin, realize that their time is irretrievably lost. “The cause of our great desperation was not that we were in love with Nihal; it was that our voices were not joined with the voices of the children outside. That’s true desperation.’

The young film director Seyfi Teoman, whose first film Tatil Kitabi recreates the mood of some of Bıçakçı’s short stories with great sensitivity, will base his second feature film on Bizim Büyük Çaresizliğimiz. We might expect a Turkish Jules and Jim, but again more subtle than Francois Truffaut’s 1962 success.

Humour is completely absent from Bıçakçı’s latest book, Bir Süre Yere Paralel Gittikten Sonra (2008). It is a collection of short texts, that read as a novel, about the existential crisis and subsequent suicide of the young artist Başak. The pieces reflect the reactions of her family and friends, especially those of her brother with whom she has a very close relationship, so close that even her boyfriend Ahmet is excluded. “This thing that they have, it’s something, a connection that just won’t let them live. Something that shuts them off, makes them withdraw. They’ve sealed themselves up so tightly, so that no one can come between them. They live as if they’re under constant threat.’ (p.32) The language is shimmering with poetry, especially in the texts expressing Basak’s increasing feeling of estrangement. The title itself contains the essence of her despair; it is en excerpt from a longer sentence and can only be understood in its context.” And I’m going to take a step towards the railing, I’m going to let my hair dangle from the balcony, I’m going to let myself fall into the void. I’ll encounter some well-intentioned soul and if she asks, I’ll point to the people down below and say, ‘After gliding parallel to the earth for some time, I told them things that they will never understand.’ So be it.’ (p.79)

Bıçakçı has a devoted following of readers from the post 1980s generation who can easily identify with his characters. Like another great Turkish writer, Hasan Ali Toptas, he has confidence in the capacity of his readers to grasp the undercurrent of the text. Toptas writes in his essay “Letter to the Reader” that he wishes to leave every second line for the reader to fill out. This is what Bıçakçı does.

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