If you liked the cells of Istanbul, Istanbul, you will like it Labyrinth (Minuscula/Periscopi), Burhan Sönmez’s penultimate literary trap. You have already guessed that this is a novel less light than oppressive, although brief. Dressed in a genre deeply rooted in Turkey. That of the confrontation of the individual with an oppressive State, which goes from Nazim Hikmet to Ahmet Altan. Kafka, if he were to be reborn, he would not be in Prague but in Ankara.
Your language and your culture
“I read my first book in Kurdish when I was 35. Now we even have rock in Kurdish. I am optimistic”
In a nearby, yet Kurdish town, Sönmez did it. During his university studies along the Bosphorus, under the dictatorship of Kenan Evren, he received his first beating. In the 90s, I would repeat. He was then a human rights lawyer, having spent nine years tending to his wounds, physical and emotional, in England, where he began to write prose.
“He betrayed all hopes, with his Islamo-nationalist positions”
Today, he divides his time between Cambridge and the Kadiköy district of Istanbul. Although his appointment as president of the International PEN Club has accelerated his pilgrimage. So much so that the interview had to be done by telephone, with the author in Lausanne and with the suitcases ready to go to Italy. In April, he will stop in Barcelona to present Labyrinth / labyrinth and, on the 20th, commemorate the centenary of Pen Català at the CCCB with a conference.
St. George’s Week
He presents his book in Barcelona and gives a lecture for the centenary of PEN Català
Its medicinally named protagonist, Boratin, jumps off the Bosphorus Bridge to commit suicide but only loses his memory. Amnesia – he doesn’t know who he is or recognizes anyone – seems to drive him to suicide, but he is saved by the will to find out why he tried the first time. So fans of Turkish soap operas, abstain. The only similarity is that the first kiss comes after an eternity. And it is also the last.
of its protagonist
“I also had suicidal thoughts and memory problems, because of the beatings. He was heavily medicated.”
“Sorry, I won’t come back to Istanbul until Osman Kavala’s new view [el “millonario rojo”, encarcelado en Turquía]who I worked with ten years ago.
Anyway, is it Boratin, his alter ego?
Well, I’ve never been a blues singer, but I also had, like him, suicidal thoughts and memory problems, because of the beatings. He was heavily medicated.
It’s a metaphor for what’s happening with the collective memory. How it is invaded and redefined. We saw it in Turkey, but also in Ukraine, because of the way ideological filters describe the Soviet era or the Nazis.
You don’t forget where you come from.
I grew up in a Kurdish environment, although far from the Southeast. Because around Ankara, the capital, there have also been Kurdish villages for four hundred years, surrounded by Turkish culture.
Even in Kurdistan, few children still play games in Kurdish.
But all is not lost. There is the awareness of being Kurdish and the political arena. In this, at least, I am not pessimistic. Despite the pressure on Kurdish culture, there have never been so many publishers and a Kurdish Light is beginning to be seen. All of this was unimaginable thirty years ago. Myself, I read a book in Kurdish for the first time at the age of thirty-five. Now we have media and even rock in Kurdish. So I’m a bit optimistic about the language.
He suffered police violence in the 1980s and then in 1996. With which prime minister?
With Necmettin Erbakan, but that’s the least of it. This is traditional state policy and they cannot change it. There was a chance to do so, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan betrayed all hopes with his Islamo-nationalist position.
Has there been no progress for twenty years?
It’s the same salad, but with the sauce changed. Before Kemalist and now Islamist. In fact, it goes back a hundred and fifty years, when the Ottoman state, which until then had been content to keep the bureaucrats in check, began to repress the intellectuals.
So my character – during his night walk through Istiklal – can confuse a banner of Erdogan with a painting of a sultan. Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar, considered the best Turkish novelist, could write that at the time of Sultan Abdulhamid “people forgot joy”. And now the same thing is happening. It is the same misfortune, the same misery and the same destruction.
In addition to the escape of the most prepared young people.
And in addition to the ten or fifteen people who jump from the Bosphorus Bridge every year. I don’t invent anything.
Melancholy, hüzün, hovers over Orhan Pamuk’s book devoted to Istanbul, already in the 90s. And Boratin, although handsome and young, refers to a time “where nostalgia replaces utopia”.
I am now old enough to have a bit of each, nostalgia and utopia.
His last book, not yet translated, seems to have more of the first and begins in the magical city of Mardín and pays homage to many entities buried by the republic.
It is that until 1955 the Greek was heard in the streets of Istanbul. So we come from a long tradition of oppression, but at the same time it has created a tradition of rebellion.
Neighborhoods that voted communist are now voting for Erdogan.
Because the 1980 coup changed Turkey’s destiny. In the sixties and seventies, there was a real struggle against oppression. We lost the organization, but not the ideas. If not, look at the protests in Gezi Park in 2013. This is something that can be revived.
In Istanbul there is a park where all the statues are of writers and journalists killed during the Years of Lead. In Turkey, there are still purges, but at least this chapter is closed.
I’m not sure, I see similarities. In 2015, in Cizre (a Kurdish town near the Syrian border), three hundred young people were burned alive in basements.
I saw the land left by the crushing of this urban guerrilla in the fortified district of Diyarbakir. Do you want me to publish it as you say?
Yes, yes, post it.
He’s revving up the engines as the new president of the International Pen Club.
Yes, with the dual mandate of promoting literature and defending freedom of expression. We have forty thousand members and a lot of work awaits us, in Egypt and in many other countries.