Our Great Contrarian: On Turkish Humor Writer Aziz Nesin


Turkey’s greatest humor writer, Aziz Nesin, was born on December 20, 1915. When, in 1993, 35 secularist intellectuals were burned to death in the hotel in which they had assembled in the central Anatolian city of Sivas, he stood at the center of the events. Dozens of mainstream papers had accused Nesin of inciting hatred by publishing a Turkish translation of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses months before the attack.

The torching of the hotel was seen as a violent reaction to Nesin’s marginal publishing activities — at least this was what we were instructed to think by the Turkish media. As a 12-year-old, I remember watching images of the Madımak Hotel; from the flames that covered the facade of the hotel, Nesin had emerged rather miraculously, like some kind of supernatural figure, being saved from the flames by the ladder of the fire brigade.

Twenty-three years later, in Istanbul, I wondered how this writer who was born when the Ottoman Empire still existed, had ended up on that ladder, meters away from flames ready to take his life. And I wondered about something else, something I found crucial for my own fragile position as a writer in Turkey: what would Nesin think were he alive in the Turkey of today? This year Turkey had been rocked by a number of chilling developments: a reignited war with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) unsettled life first in eastern Anatolian cities, then in Ankara, finally in Turkey’s touristic heart Istanbul, where bomb attacks have become part of the daily routine. A worsening geopolitical clash with Russia and numerous ISIS bombings intended to further destabilize Turkish society have resulted in the contraction of the national economy and the near collapse of Turkey’s tourism industry, which the government attempted to heal by making major shifts in its foreign policy. And finally a failed coup attempt on July 15, which ended in the deaths of hundreds of people and a momentary new spirit of unity. What would Nesin say about all this?

Serving as a career officer for many years in his 20s, Nesin became the fiercest critic of the state he had spent years to protect with his life. Here was a man of contradictions: A defender of republican reforms and a committed enemy of conservatism, Nesin had kept his diaries in Ottoman script and became a hafız (someone who has memorized The Qur’an) in his childhood. Nesin was the perfect symbol of the cultural crises Turkey experienced throughout the last century. Watching images of military tanks cutting citizens into two on the streets of Ankara, and the bomb attack and crying tourists in Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, I wondered if Turkey’s formula for keeping those contradictions in uneasy harmony at home would survive the attacks against the country. With the rise of fear and violence, were we losing the nuance that is the inheritance of our shared history? Nesin’s story was also relevant for other parts of the world. After all, he was a composite of the kind of people a conservative society creates and the kind of person who passionately rebels against that culture.

For a long time Turkey has had a strictly secular regime that has often tipped into authoritarianism as it presides over a largely religious population. It was in this strained cultural atmosphere that Aziz Nesin lived and produced his work. After his death, a new wave of politicians reconfigured Turkey’s public sphere; this new politics, a combination of Islamism with modern economic growth, seemed to be on the verge of unravelling in the eyes of some through the past few years.

In Turkish, Aziz means Saint. Paradoxically it fits perfectly the country’s most famous atheist and stubborn provocateur. In 1993 Nesin started putting out his translation of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Not long ago, in my Istanbul apartment, I picked my copy of Rushdie’s 2012 autobiography Joseph Anton, where the novelist describes Nesin (“newspaper publisher and provocateur”) as an irritating, stubborn old man. Nesin’s Turkish edition of The Satanic Verses had infuriated Rushdie, who had first met him a year before the Satanic Verses controversy “when the Turkish writer was the one in trouble. Harold Pinter invited a group of writers to the Camden Hill Square house to organize a protest because Nesin had been told that Turkey had decided to confiscate his passport.”

Nesin’s troubles were due to his fierce criticism of the secular-nationalist junta that had usurped political power in Turkey. This was ironic, given how he was accused of being a secular-purist in his later life, despite having spent so much of his life fighting against the institution that most vigorously defended that stance. When Nesin started publishing unspecified extracts from The Satanic Verses in Aydınlık, a socialist newspaper, without having any agreement with him, Rushdie was shocked to see how his text was represented in Turkey.

The headline over the excerpts read SALMAN RUSHDIE: THINKER OR CHARLATAN? In the following days there were more extracts, and Nesin’s commentary on those extracts made it clear that he was firmly in the ‘charlatan’ camp. The Wylie Agency wrote to Nesin to tell him that piracy was piracy and, if he had, as he said, fought for the rights of writers for many years, would he be willing to object to Ayatollah Khomeini’s infringement of those rights? Nesin’s reply was as petulant as possible. He printed the agency’s letter in his newspaper, and commented, “Of what concern is Salman Rushdie’s cause to me?” He said he intended to continue publishing, and if Rushdie objected, “you may take us to court.”

Such was Nesin’s talent at getting on people’s nerves: as an iconoclast he continuously got into trouble with iconoclasts. In today’s Turkey he would most probably critique Islamists, secularists, and liberals with equal passion: he was an author who loved making waves. Besides Rushdie, the people Nesin drove crazy with his attitude included Turkish civil servants and prime ministers, generals and figures in the highest echelons of Turkish political power.

Like Christopher Hitchens, Nesin was a great contrarian: fighting authority was his lifeblood. It was, also, something that regularly cost him his freedom. In 1947, Nesin was sentenced to 10 months in prison for a piece he wrote; in 1955 he was imprisoned again, this time for nine months, accused of “organizing a communist plot.” He would most probably get into trouble in the Ergenekon trials in 2008, where around 300 journalists, opposition figures, and military officers were given life sentences for “plotting a secularist coup against the government.”

It was only in 1965, at the age of 50, that Nesin would be allowed to get a passport and travel abroad. He also angered some powerful people from outside Turkey — Queen Elizabeth no less. She had sued the Turkish humorist in court in 1949 for an article where Nesin was accused of degrading the monarch, alongside Iran’s King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and King Farouk of Egypt. A Turkish court accepted Queen Elizabeth’s application via Turkey’s Foreign Office, and Nesin went to prison for six months.

“When I first opened my eyes to this world, I was surrounded by fire,” Nesin writes in his autobiography, describing a scene eerily similar to the hotel fire that was meant to kill him. “My first memory in life is that of crimson colored flames that have covered the black sky entirely.” Nesin’s mother wakes him up and immediately takes and kisses The Qur’an in the room, carrying it with her before rescuing her daughter whom she leads out of the burning house. Such was the importance of the holy text in the Nesin house — and such was the continuous connection it would have with fires in Nesin’s life.

“I was not one bit scared by what had happened; the whole thing remained in my memory as if it was some kind of a nocturnal entertainment, a holiday celebration,” Nesin writes and describes how he spent the night in the graveyard. “It was either 1919 or 1920…My father was not around. He had moved to Anatolia much earlier, leaving us there like that…”

Abdülaziz, Nesin’s father, was a gardener who grew up in one of Istanbul’s Princes Islands, Heybeliada. Young Aziz had a fascinating relationship with this man who had fought in Turkey’s war of independence. Firstly, he owed him his name: born as Mehmet Nusret (the name of his grandfather), Aziz Nesin started using his father’s name when he became a writer, so as to keep away from the wrath of authorities. Secondly, he owed him his education: in order to enroll at Istanbul’s prestigious Darüşşafaka School, which only accepted orphans as students, he had to pretend that the man whose name he chose as his nom de plume, was dead.

One day in July two years ago, I took a ferry to Heybeliada where Nesin had lived before his family moved to Istanbul in 1928. It was a beautiful summer day and the private boat I took from the European neighborhood of Kabataş was filled with Arab tourists, young Turkish couples, pleasure-seeking Americans, and bike lovers who had carried their vehicles with them on board –they seemed like characters from a Nesin story. I had my Nesin books in my tote bag and was happy with the prospect of spending the day at Heybeliada, a great place to party, picnic, and cycle with its deserted beaches and its long, intricate roads that surround the island.

The ferry ride takes an hour and I spent it browsing through Nesin’s reminiscences of his childhood. “The day when the Bosphorus was frozen, the Istanbul pier was covered by towers of ice,” Nesin writes as he remembers the difficulty of commuting between Heybeliada and Istanbul every school day. “I saw icebergs which had the size of a two or three storied apartment block…From the windows of the ferry we watched the icebergs for awhile. Then dusk fell…All the ferries were canceled.” Nesin would take the 5:30 a.m. ferry every day from Heybeliada to Istanbul so as to be on time in Darüşşafaka School where lessons began at 8 a.m. After my arrival there, I walked on Heybeliada’s streets, trying to imagine the young humorist trying to make it to the ferry in time.

Nesin wrote his first play, which was five pages long, in 1922, before the founding of Turkish republic. In 1927, while at high school, he sent letters to publishers about his desire to write a novel, but those dreams were cut short when he lost his mother to tuberculosis. When, subsequently, the Turkish government introduced a “Surname Law” and asked all citizens to pick a surname, he found himself in the curious position of choosing a surname for himself. His surname Nesin came from the question he desired to ask himself throughout his life — Nesin means “What are you?” in Turkish. “The most close-fisted called themselves ‘Generous’ while the most fearful citizens picked the surname ‘Brave’ and the laziest among us became ‘Hardworking,'” he later recalled. This was one of Nesin’s earliest encounters with the absurdities of his country.

In 1937 Nesin became an officer and later confessed to feeling “like a Napoleon…I was among the many Napoleons in the Turkish army…I would conquer the world a few times every day with my red pencil. My Napoleon delusion went on for a few years. But even during my sickness I never became a fascist.” From 1942, he started sending out short stories, and started using the name Aziz Nesin for the first time. By 1945 he was writing for the left-wing newspaper Tan. The next year, he started publishing the satirical magazine Marko Paşa with his novelist friend Sabahattin Ali (Ali’s masterpiece, Madonna in a Fur Coat, was published in English translation by Penguin Classics this year). The wry tone of the paper proved a big success: Turkey’s leading newspaper Cumhuriyet, had a dead serious style and ultra-nationalist editorial line at the time, frequently denouncing dissident figures like the poet Nâzım Hikmet as “enemies of the republic” in Pravda fashion. It sold 30,000 copies every day; Marko Paşa which mocked everything with trademark irreverence, sold 60,000.

Nesin had a particular sense of humor based on a thoroughgoing disregard of authority, which in the 1940s was represented by the secular-republican single-party regime. He loved giving a difficult time to three Ps of Turkey: police, politicians, and the People with a capital p. The first Nesin accused of being ineffective and useless, focused only on stifling freedoms. In his story “I am Sorry” a man shouts non-stop for police to inform them about a crime that is about be committed. “A man is going to be murdered in that building over there,” he informs a police officer who ignores him: “I’m sorry, I can’t interfere in this matter…Because I am a police officer controlling the traffic. If I leave my post, who do you think will look after the traffic muddle?” Another cop turns him down, giving the excuse that his duty is to check the rates of vegetables fixed by the Municipal Corporation. Next, a crime branch officer tells him he only deals with theft cases; another says he is on leave that day. As he loses all hope a man approaches him to say: “If you really want the police to come right to your feet, go to that open space across the road, stand on a soap box and start delivering a forceful speech.” When he gets onto a soap box and utters the words “Fellow countrymen! Isn’t it disgraceful living like this in our own country?” policemen materialize in four corners, hold the man by his collar, and take him away, still paying no attention to the crime that has just been committed nearby. This is not terribly different from what imprisoned journalists have often felt in Turkey: you can publicly threaten people with death and little happens to you, while journalism is frequently considered a crime, often an act of treason.

In a similarly surreal story named “A Unique Surgical Operation,” Nesin shifts his focus to Turkish politicians. He describes scenes from the fictional International Surgical Congress where prominent doctors from 23 countries read scientific papers on various subjects. An American surgeon announces his plans to completely change a person’s fingerprints, while a British surgeon manages to replant a soldier’s severed head on his body, years after his death. Meanwhile a German surgeon collects the surviving organs of dead bodies to convert them into a live human. Finally, on the last day of the congress, a delegate climbs the podium to talk about a recent operation he performed, involving the removal of his patient’s tonsils. The audience, shocked with the simplicity of the invention, mocks the doctor when he tells them: “Do you know who the person was whose tonsils I removed? Worthy friends! Let me tell you that my patient was a journalist.” This is followed by a speech about the lack of freedom in Turkey. “Accordingly, journalists were not allowed to open their mouth at all. As my patient happened to be a journalist, I had no alternative but to approach his diseased tonsils through an opening other than his gagged mouth.” All doctors agree that this is the most unique and difficult surgical operation proposed in the congress. This cynical and absurd tone has proved popular among readers who would be irritated when Nesin’s criticisms started targeting them.

During a panel, a fan asked Nesin whether Turks were very clever as descendants of Nasreddin, the 14-century Sufi and folk hero known for his wit and funny stories. Nesin answered that 60 percent of Turkish people were stupid. He later explained those inflammatory remarks and said the stupidity was connected to “the national diet,” which did not include enough proteins. In interviews with the German press, Nesin was asked whether those comments were not similar to things racist and xenophobic politicians and journalists said about immigrant Turks. But Nesin didn’t take back his words: in old age he became a more passionate contrarian. This would surely give him a difficult time in today’s Turkey, where “condescension” has become a key concept in public debates. It would be easy to instrumentalize instances of Nesin’s condescension towards Turkey’s people, and easily condescend the condescending figure — but then again, Nesin could turn that into comedy as well.

In Heybeliada, I started climbing the steep uphill that starts from the pier and leads to the island’s residential areas, where numerous luxurious mansions and hotels are located. Walking past them I thought of Nesin’s father Abdülaziz, a committed supporter of the Sultan, in whose house Nesin spent his first years. I thought about the Ottoman-loving father and the communist child, and how their relationship so closely resembled contemporary father-son relationships in Turkey.

I wandered around the island, which has a museum devoted to İsmet İnönü, Turkey’s second president, under whose single-party rule Nesin suffered intensely, and another for the novelist Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar. When I spotted the offices of Heybeliada Volunteers Organization at the end of the road, I was sure that they could point me toward Nesin’s home. “Aziz Nesin?” the volunteer lady asked, looking as if she heard the name for the first time. “I don’t believe we have anything on him.” When I asked a real estate office about his house, I was told that Orhan Pamuk used to live on Heybeliada but they knew nothing about Nesin.

“No one, including Nesin himself, could find the house he grew up in,” Süleyman Cihangiroğlu tells me a month after my 2015 visit to Heybeliada. “He went to the island many times but just couldn’t locate that house.” We are sitting in the garden of the Nesin Foundation, run by Cihangiroğlu for the last six years. Under the shadow of a long tree, I listen to stories about how Nesin was devastated by the loss of his mother whilst living in Heybeliada. “Nesin was very young when she died of tuberculosis. In his later life, he always tried to find in his love affairs a resemblance of her.”

Cihangiroğlu was born in Şırnak in 1977, four years after the foundation of the Nesin Foundation. He comes from a family of 12 children; one of his elder brothers, a fan of Aziz Nesin, was aware of the existence of the foundation, which Nesin wrote about in special chapters in his books published throughout the 1980s (“The way Nesin gave news about the foundation in his books was a bit like Facebook status updates,” Cihangiroğlu says).

The foundation is in Çatalca, around two hours’ drive from the centre of Istanbul. Founded to educate children in need of help, it accommodates around 40 kids a year. Graduates, still called “Nesin kids,” rarely stop visiting the place after their “graduation,” which occurs when kids achieve financial independence.

Cihangiroğlu first came to the foundation in 1990. “My brother had written a letter to Nesin and asked him to be allowed to stay here. Nesin wrote back, saying that although he seems like a bright kid, he was too old. ‘Bring two of your younger brothers here.'” This would be the first time Cihangiroğlu traveled outside Şırnak, which at the time was at the heart of the conflict between the Turkish state and armed Kurdish militants. While writing this piece, the city again turned into a violent place, with the intensification of the armed conflict between the Turkish army and militants of PKK, leading many to flee their homes and move to western cities.

“I couldn’t sleep the night before the day we traveled here,” Cihangiroğlu remembers. “In my room I drew a straight line from Şırnak to here. I tried to imagine what kind of a journey it would be.” When he arrived one late night, Nesin was not inside, having gone abroad for a book tour. It took Cihangiroğlu only a few hours to get used to living at the foundation. “By the next day, it was as if I had been living here my whole life,” he says.

When I took a walk in the foundation building I was surprised to see how many facilities it contained: a swimming pool, a basketball pitch, a carpentry atelier, large reading rooms with comfy sofas, a huge library that houses thousands of books, and a museum floor filled with Nesin’s personal items. In one room I was startled by the sound of notes. A little boy, who had come inside unannounced, was playing the piano by the wall.

“I used to call him Aziz Dede (Grandfather Aziz),” Cihangiroğlu says. “He was this figure that all the kids really respected and were a bit afraid of. Thanks to him I had a great childhood.”

While growing up, Cihangiroğlu discovered how famous Aziz Nesin was. He read all his books, no mean feat when you consider Nesin wrote more than 100. In the 1980s, after the military coup, Nesin’s tireless defense of human rights and freedom of speech got him into trouble. In his role as the lead campaigner of Aydınlar Dilekçesi (The Intellectuals’ Petition), Nesin had infuriated the generals in 1984. Submitted to the Presidency and the leader of Turkish parliament on May 1984, the petition was entitled “Observations and Demands Concerning the Democratic Order in Turkey.” It started in a stark tone (“Turkey is undergoing one of its heaviest crisis which is yet to come to an end. Without a doubt, all sectors, levels and officials of our society are responsible for this massive crisis”) and highlighted the importance of democracy. “Preserving it formally while clearing it of its contents, is as dangerous as destroying democracy.”

The petition called for an immediate end to torture and demands from the state “to follow legal rules whilst fighting acts of terror.” Signed by 1,300 intellectuals, the text had drawn the fury of President Kenan Evren, who called its signatories “a group of intellectuals who don’t know better” before suing them en masse. “Everyone speaks against Evren and his coup today,” Cihangiroğlu tells me in the garden of the foundation. “But it demanded guts to say these things in the 1980s and Nesin did have guts. Many old leftists who had taken asylum in Europe in 1980s now come to Nesin Foundation and tell us how they had disagreements with Nesin (some of them hated him). ‘Now we respect him for his fight against the dictators; he never left the country like we did!’ they confess.”

After the “Intellectuals’ Petition” and the Satanic Verses controversy, which ended in disaster, Nesin was a tired man. It was during this time that the German journalist Günter Wallraff wanted to put right “the misunderstanding” between Nesin and Rushdie and brought them together. Rushdie described the meeting in detail:

He flew from Biggin Hill to Colongne, and at Günter’s home the great journalist and his wife were loud, jovial and welcoming, and Wallraff insisted they play Ping-Pong at once. Wallraff turned out to be a strong player and won most of the games. Aziz Nesin, a small, stocky, silver-haired man, did not come to the Ping-Pong table. He looked like what he was; a badly shaken man who was also unhappy with the company he was in. He sat in a corner and brooded. This was not promising. In the first formal conversation between them, with Wallraff acting as interpreter, Nesin continued to be as scornful as he had been in Aydınlık.

Wallraff’s attempts at reconciling two secularist writers ended successfully: “in the end Nesin, muttering and grumbling, extended his hand. There was a brief hand clasp followed by an even briefer hug and a photograph in which everyone looked ill at ease and then Wallraff cried, ‘Good! Now we are all friends!’ and took them all for a motorboat ride on the Rhine…Wallraff’s people had filmed the whole event and put together a news item featuring Nesin and himself in which they jointly denounced religious fanaticism and the weakness of the West’s responses to it. In public at least, the rift was healed. Aziz Nesin and he had no further contact, Nesin lived on for two years, until a heart attack bore him away.”

After Nesin’s death in 1995, his mathematician son Ali became the president of the foundation. Cihangiroğlu remembers how all their income had come from sales of Nesin’s books when he was alive; after his death the sales dropped dramatically and Ali Nesin decided to invest all their money in real estate. One third of their income comes from rent, a third from donations, and a third from book sales (they founded Nesin Publications in 2004; the publishing house sold 270,000 copies of Nesin books last year).

On the birthday of Nesin on December 27, 2009, the directorship of the foundation was handed to Cihangiroğlu, who was 32 at the time. “My father had written in his will that one of our kids should run the foundation in the future,” Ali Nesin told him.

Before leaving the foundation, I took a walk in the garden where Nesin’s dream of building a space free from rules and punishments seems to have come true. As I looked at children from different ages sleeping in the shade of trees, I was reminded of Nesin’s perpetual desire to pay his debt to the society he was born in. The state had treated him in the most cruel manner imaginable. And yet, this man of contradictions and surprises always felt that he had to pay his debt to the state, and the people he loved to shock with his views. “You don’t owe me a thing,” Nesin had told Cihangiroğlu shortly before his death. “You owe Socrates and Edison for what they did for humanity. You should be worthy of our species. That is all I ask from you.”

Back in Istanbul I visited DEPO gallery, a former tobacco warehouse, to see their show “A Life Overflowing: Aziz Nesin.” Bringing together letters, diaries, notes, unpublished texts, drawings, cartoons, and objects from Nesin’s archive, this was a meticulously researched show. That it was exhibited in Tophane, one of Istanbul’s most passionately conservative neighborhoods, made it even more interesting.

In November 2015, I talked to the show’s curator Işın Önol, who devoted months to researching Nesin’s legacy. “I had read Nesin’s work before but I didn’t know his writing enough to curate a show about him,” Önol says, before confessing to have assumed that Nesin was a staunch republican.

“I discovered that he was instead a staunch critic of the People’s Republican party.” Önol realized that the problem lied with her own wish to classify and pigeonhole the great humorist. Like many of us living in Turkey, she had forgotten about the nuance; the grey area Nesin had spent his life in. “I was reading his notes about the Yassıada trials, where the conservative prime minister of Turkey Adnan Menderes was tried for treason. I assumed that Nesin would be in support of the mentality that hung Menderes. Instead I saw how he acted like a scientist: he looks at everything from a critical perspective.” Describing Nesin as unorthodox in his desire to have democracy not only for himself but also for others, Önol believes that Nesin was gravely misunderstood as a result of the political convictions of people who supported him.

“Nesin struggled for the freedom of expression of all people, whatever their belief, and whatever cost he would have to pay,” Önol says. The legacy of Nesin showed itself during the first week of the exhibition, when someone threw paint on the exhibition poster outside DEPO, a sign that the thick air of anxiety that surrounded Nesin’s name was still with us.

“It was not a violent act but rather an amateurish one,” Önol muses. “We thought that if the attackers went inside the building and visited the exhibition, they might not have done what they did.” The exhibition team chose not to inform the press about the incident.

“In the past, DEPO Gallery has opened numerous exhibitions which courageously questioned issues like the Kurdish and Armenian question,” Önol tells me. “Despite being located in a sensitive place like Tophane, it was never attacked. And yet we were aware of having this exhibition about a writer whom people wanted to burn alive in Sivas in 1993. Inescapably we felt anxious about what could happen.” After the event, thousands of new visitors flocked to Tophane; the increased interest forced Önol’s team to extend the show.

Nesin’s life was illustrative of the contradictions of Turkey, a young country, in the 21st century. Twenty-one years after his death, as I took the ferry from Heybeliada to Kabataş after another visit to Nesin’s childhood locale, it seemed like the nuance Nesin represented so passionately amidst all those contradictions was worth fighting to preserve. In a public rally in Istanbul in August, secularist republicans and conservatives marched together, as right-wing politicians read poems by the Marxist Nâzım Hikmet, and left-wing leaders voiced conservative sounding views. Nesin’s island was serene and distant from the violence of the July 15 coup attempt and I felt sad to leave it. From my seat in the ferry, the same ferry Turkey’s greatest humorist took to school at 5:30 a.m. everyday, I could see the outlines of Istanbul growing larger and larger, like Nesin’s legacy itself.

Images: The Nesin Foundation, courtesy of the author

Here’s to the Cowardly Ones: On Dmitri Shostakovich and Emotional Rebellion

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Dmitri Shostakovich was, by Julian Barnes’s reckoning, a coward. The leading composer of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s USSR, Shostakovich never stood up to power; he was a constant compromiser, accepting what was asked of him by Soviet leaders and giving speeches written by party ideologues. When Soviet Culture Commissar Andrei Zhdanov lectured Soviet artists on the merits of socialist realism and the ills of formalism, ordering them to follow the Zhdanov Doctrine (“The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best”), Shostakovich did not oppose this shallow culture commissar. He was even compelled to join, in a music congress in New York, the public denunciation of the Soviet Union’s leading exiled composer Igor Stravinsky. In return, Shostakovich was rewarded with every available prize the party handed out to the faithful.

The opening chapter of The Noise of Time, Barnes’s portrait of the composer, puts us on the platform of a train station. The scene seems to come directly out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. A beggar (“the man — in reality half a man”) propels himself using a strange vehicle, “a low trolley with wooden wheels” that can only be steered by wrenching at “the contraption’s front edge.” In order to avoid overbalancing, the beggar uses a “rope that passed underneath the trolley [and] was looped through the top of his trousers.”

This Beckettian beggar’s only concern is to make it to the end of each day, and in this he sets an example for other characters in the novel. Like Shostakovich, “he had become a technique for survival. Below a certain point, that was what all men became: techniques for survival.” Not until we reach the end of Barnes’s latest novel do we realize the significance of its sketchy opening scene, reminiscent of the sink scene at the start of Barnes’s Booker-winning, similarly slim novel, The Sense of an Ending. The scene conceals in it Shostakovich’s Rosebud, the mystery of which drives the reader throughout the book.

Barnes has composed The Noise of Time like a piece of orchestral music. The third-person narrative features numerous leitmotifs: the fear of detainment, the obsession with being on the right side of the party line, the fear of getting blacklisted from Soviet concert halls — none of which had been fears of a paranoid mind: Shostakovich experienced them all. His life was shaped by a series of catastrophes.

Shostakovich came from an urban Saint Petersburg family. His mother had danced the mazurka in front of Nicholas II; after the death of her husband, she took menial jobs to support her two daughters and “a musically precocious son of fifteen.” Shostakovich’s first public performance at the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire was a sad affair. But it had an ostensibly positive outcome: he met Marshal Tukhachevsky, a patron of arts, who helped the young Shostakovich get on with his career (and would eventually get him into serious trouble).

In between 1926 and the premieres of his first masterpieces in the mid-1930s, Shostakovich had already faced numerous hostilities. At the Conservatoire, leftist students tried to have him dismissed; the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians had accused him of being part of the bourgeois stranglehold on the arts and campaigned for his blacklisting. In 1929, at the age of 23, he was denounced, on the grounds that his music was “straying from the main road of Soviet art;” he was accused of formalism by youth organizations.

But it was in 1936, with the publication of a Pravda article on the day after the performance of his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk that Shostakovich’s real troubles began. In a powerfully imagined and chillingly lucid scene, Barnes depicts the composer anxiously watching the government box in the concert hall, across from the director’s box where he was stood. “Stalin was hidden behind a small curtain, an absent presence to whom the other distinguished comrades would sycophantically turn, knowing that they were themselves observed,” we are told. “Given the occasion, both conductor and orchestra were understandably nervous.”

Soon afterwards, on the third page of Pravda, the ominous headline, written probably by Stalin, stabbed a knife in him: MUDDLE INSTEAD OF MUSIC. Shostakovich’s music quacked, grunted and growled, according to the paper; it had a “nervous, convulsive and spasmodic” nature. It “tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music.”

The next year, in the spring of 1937, Shostakovich had his first direct conflagration with Soviet power when he was dispatched to the party building on Liteiny Prospekt. There he was questioned by a certain Zakrevsky, who asked him about Marshal Tukhachevsky, accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin. Barnes does an excellent job at depicting the psychology of his protagonist during the days when Shostakovich believed his life was about to come to an end. “They always came for you in the middle of the night,” we are informed. “And so, rather than be dragged from the apartment in his pajamas, or forced to dress in front of some contemptuously impassive NKVD man, he would go to bed fully clothed, lying on top of the blankets, a small case already packed on the floor beside him.”

Terrified and unable to think about anything besides power, Shostakovich started spending his nights by the lift, watching the opening of the elevator, waiting for the arrival NVKD men in terror. We watch Shostakovich as he kisses his wife and holds his child one last time before taking the bus to the gray building where he expects to be deported to a labor camp. “He was always punctual, and would go to his death being punctual. He gazed briefly at the River Neva, which would outlast them all.” A set of chance events (it turns out that Zaykrevsky has himself been arrested) helped Shostakovich get off the hook. But the experience has a transformative effect on him; the composer spent the rest of his life fearing the repetition of such a chilling experience. Barnes chronicles how, years later in 1949, the terror returns to Shostakovich’s life with his dismissal from his professorships at Moscow and Leningrad conservatories. The performance of his music are banned. Another miraculous event saved him when the telephone rings in March 1949, and the composer hears the magical words: “Stalin is about to come on the line.”

I was particularly impressed by this scene that brings to mind Louis Althusser’s concept of hailing: we become subjects as we answer to the hail of power — be it the policeman on the street or Comrade Stalin on the phone. The voice of power first asks the artist how he is and only learns that Shostakovich is suffering from stomach ache. Who in his case wouldn’t? “I am sorry to hear that. We shall find a doctor for you,” power says. Shostakovich informs him about his blacklisting; one word from power can surely fix that. And it indeed does. “The mistake will be corrected,” Stalin says. “None of your works has been forbidden. They can all be freely played. This has always been the case.”

Throughout the rest of this moving book, Barnes takes us inside the composer’s mind, observing how he reacts to the ceaseless demands of power. As power gradually thorns apart his soul, Shostakovich learns how to be a strategist. He is a cunning, silent character (not unlike James Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus), but chooses not to live in exile, which might potentially save him. Barnes shows how being a coward is not easy as you think. “To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment,” he writes. “When you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t even relax.”

Barnes convincingly argues that it is precisely due to his cowardly qualities (these are very English qualities, according to Barnes) that Shostakovich was a hero. He did not make a show of his soul in public speeches or political statements; he was a misfit, an emotional rebel but only from the inside; only by being strategic was he able to preserve his artistic self in the face of party hostility and oppression.

The day after I finished The Noise of Time I started listening to Shostakovich albums on Spotify — I became fixated on the preludes. You should, too. I had little idea that a text could inflict such an effect on music. But there it was. As I listened to his “Prelude and Fugue no. 4,” all the pains Shostakovich took, all the paranoid acts Barnes meticulously details in his book, suddenly made sense. The introvert misfit whose public persona was so unlikable reveals himself fully in those notes.

If Shostakovich succumbed to power, it was in an effort to leave the world with beauty that cannot be marred by power. The composer’s real feat had been to be able to produce such fugues and preludes while mechanically submitting: as politics killed Shostakovich from inside, his misfit, soul remained magnificently alive in his fugues and preludes. Shostakovich, in his forced cowardice, found his own revolution in his music.

The Heart of My Life, the Life of My Heart


Not all books can make us cry and those that do are often so shamefully sentimental that we can’t easily admit to reading them, let alone crying with them. This, however, is not the case with Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life, a novella-length text in three chapters, which produces in its reader tears of the most literary kind.

The book’s first two chapters concern the adventures of a set of nineteenth century figures from England and France: the most popular actress of the time, Sarah Bernhardt, the photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (popularly known as Nadar), and Fred Burnaby, a colonel in the Royal Horse Guards, a cavalry regiment of the British Army. All of those characters are devoted aeronauts and are fascinated by balloons and their machinations. Levels of Life begins in a cheerful mood, with the ascent of the trio from the ground in separate balloons. Some of them are accompanied by bottles of champagne, others by copies of the London Times and all with high hopes of witnessing great landscapes.

Burnaby and his French friends seem to have the best time, clinking their glasses and discussing whether the monarchy or the republic is the better system. Barnes does an excellent job in describing the differences between the aeronautical cultures on two sides of the English Channel. In England the Aeronautical Society’s members include a number of lords and dukes while in France the Societe des aeronautes, founded by Nadar, is more of an artistic society, listing Alexandre Dumas, père et fils, and George Sand among its members.

There are descriptions of the first balloon and the pleasure it brought to aeronauts in the eighteenth century. There are snapshots of accidents and violence, too. A young man dies in Newcastle, falling to earth from “a height of several hundred feet,” his internal organs bursting out on to the ground. Then there are references to ballooning’s cultural significance (according to Nadar the three supreme emblems of modernity are “photography, electricity and aeronautics”) as well as the political hopes it had inspired. Victor Hugo and progressives in France believed that balloons could bring democracy to the world. Barnes doesn’t seem to share their enthusiasm. Aeronautics did not lead to democracy, he jokes, “unless budget airlines count.”

There is an enjoyable portrait of Nadar, “a journalist, caricaturist, photographer, balloonist, entrepreneur and inventor, a keen registerer of patents and founder of companies.” His fascinating life story floats above Victorian history, drifting from one project to another, very much like a balloon. He arises as a man more interested in the vertical than the horizontal. Nadar’s fascination with height and Paris sewers are accompanied by Barnes’s own memories in Paris as a young man.

After “The Sin of Height” and “On The Level,” a rather flat chapter in which Barnes dramatizes the relationship between Burnaby and Bernhardt, we reach “The Loss of Depth.” Here, the cheerful historical figures of the book leave the stage to a couple (Barnes and his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh who died in 2007) who play the tragic last days of their relationship before our eyes. Kavanagh is a co-author of Levels of Life in the sense that it is above all her memory that defines and gives meaning to this text.

Barnes and Kavanagh have loved each other intensely for many decades:
We were together for thirty years. I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart. And though she hated the idea of growing old — in her twenties, she thought she would never live past forty — I happily looked forward to our continuing life together: to things becoming slower and calmer, to collaborative recollection.
Reading this chapter one feels as if the balloon in which they began traveling together all those years ago is now occupied only by the reader and Barnes whose job it is to look at the distance they traveled as a couple. The thirty seven days between the diagnosis of Kavanagh’s illness and her death form the emotional core here, as do Barnes’s experiences of desperation and grief.

It is the abrupt and sudden severing of a relationship that makes Barnes’s prose so unbearably intense. “You put together two people who have not been put together before,” he muses, “then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there.”

What was taken from him with Kavanagh’s death had been alluded to in different texts, but in a decisively covert manner. A quick look at some of the titles of Barnes’s most recent books gives a good idea about his experience: Nothing to Be Frightened Of, The Sense of an Ending. Although both of these books have death as their central theme Levels of Life is the first text in which Barnes tries to come to terms with the experience of losing Kavanagh.

In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” Edgar Allan Poe argued that the death of a beautiful woman is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” That Kavanagh is dead and Barnes, a master of the English language and certainly one of the more significant innovators of the English novel, is here to tell the tale of her death, is sufficient to make these recollections poetical. For Barnes, the death of a loved one had become a source of inspiration, however painful that experience might have been. Completed four years after Kavanagh’s death, his recollections reflect not only his ongoing feeling of desperation but also his fascination with the idea of death. It is as if Barnes, who had loved words and his wife more than anything else in the world, had to endure the pain of losing one of his beloved things. This leaves him alone with the other thing: literature.

Levels of Life ends, surprisingly I think, in a light and cheerful note, with the image of France. His devoted readers will know that French culture is one of Barnes’s intellectual passions which, one by one, continue to receive the delicate attention of this unique writer.

My Little Library in Anatolia

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In 2009, when I was a graduate student in Istanbul, I worked full-time in a newspaper, editing the paper’s books supplement. I was a busy man with lots of editorial assignments on my plate. I had little time to concentrate on my doctoral dissertation — a study of Hegel’s influence on late-Victorian authors. Instead of writing in academic Hegelese, I spent my days behind my office desk where I commissioned, edited, fact-checked, and proofread. A week after my 28th birthday in March, while hard at work on the first draft of a book review, I received a call from the university’s student affairs department. The voice on the other end of the line said there had been a “strange problem” with my academic credits some months ago. The mistake had led to the termination of my enrollment: from this moment onwards I would be subject to the draft.

“Ah, Mr Genç, I am so sorry for you,” the student affairs woman said with a genuine feeling in her voice, “but there is nothing I can do.”

There was nothing she could do. In less than two weeks I would be running on the hills of some distant Anatolian town with a military rifle in my hand.

The news was difficult to digest. So difficult, in fact, that when I heard the dial tone I decided to put away the unfinished review and drink a glass of whisky instead.

Come April 10, I had cleared my desk at the office and arrived at an Anatolian city where my six-month-long national service in a gendarme squadron officially began. I was immediately nicknamed “journo” by the commanders. After the initial month of training came to an end my fellow gendarmes were assigned to various positions related to their education. I, the academic-cum-journalist, meanwhile, was given the most intellectual post the commanders could think of.

“I have just made you the squadron’s librarian,” said our lieutenant, a muscular man whose every word was law and from whose super cool sunshades I could see the reflection of my face.

“Here are the keys to the library. Take them! From now on it will be under your responsibility. Clean the place every day! Don’t give books to everyone! Give them only to soldiers you trust! Now get lost!”

I did get lost. And when I hid myself in that room, which was hardly bigger than 100 square feet, I found myself surrounded by a series of dusty books. Although the books were old and deep in hibernation, the people who came to read them were very much alive. So in my small library in a distant Anatolian town I learned an awful lot about what young Turkish men enjoyed reading under the gun. I watched them as they read for relief. I watched them as they read for pleasure. I watched them as they read for keeping sane.

It was during the first days of my librarian career that I found copies of Harlequin books in the drawer of my little metal desk. The previous librarian, who was less than a week away from being discharged, informed me that the dogeared pages of those romantic books would always be hotly sought after by soldiers.

“Be mindful of those Harlequins,” he briefed me. “Never let soldiers bring them to their barracks. Or it will be YOU who gets into trouble.”

I was asked to recommend books so many times that I ended up feeling like Jorge of Burgos, a post-modern recreation of Borges in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The blind librarian wants to decide what his fellow monks read in their spare time, taking drastic measures to impose his scholastic beliefs. Whenever I heard others asking me what they should read, I came up with a recommendation that I expected they might follow, and tried to be less insistent than Burgos.

But my small library was something more than a miniature version of Amazon’s recommendations sidebar. Gradually it became a place where soldiers socialized. Young commanders visited me and talked at length about their dreams, which they then asked (or ordered) me to interpret.

There was much talk about books and films. Politics, too, was discussed: “When I retire come visit me in Ankara and I will give you an interview about my political beliefs,” said one commander. I will need to wait for almost two decades for that but still I am curious about what he has to say. Others had more personal stories to tell, and they told them instantly: a book was always a great beginning point, an unmistakable icebreaker.

As I tried to come up with intelligent-sounding solutions to the problems of the Turkish military, I began to feel like Lucy van Pelt in Peanuts — of course there was no way to charge each commander five cents for my services but if I did I would surely be a rich man now.

So what did they read apart from the Harlequin books? To my surprise it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre that was most popular. I heard from more than one private that the military life resembled the life described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a book in high demand among the bored and the depressed. Then I discovered two shelves of 19th-century Russian classics; from that point onwards whenever a soldier asked for a trashy novel I handed him one of those tomes. I even attempted to describe the classics’ qualities, in one memorable occasion pontificating about the eternal question of Russian literature, “Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?” (Tolstoy writes better, but Dostoyevsky’s world is more similar to ours, I said.)

My friends who worked at the canteen were offering free chocolate pudding and hamburgers to their fellow soldiers, while I gave my friends copies of The Possessed, War and Peace, and “The Nose.”

How did all those Russian classics end up there? The answer had more to do with politics than with refined literary taste. Turkey had decades-long ties with NATO; the country had been seen as a frontier of the free world and was an outpost of the struggle against communism during the Cold War. Therefore Turkish military officials had long been well-versed in Russian culture. For the last few decades, the best translations of works by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov were delivered by high-ranking soldiers.

Meanwhile, the rest of the books in the library (all those dusty sermons, military handbooks, and well-bound editions of Turkish state literature) went unread.

Nowadays whenever I visit one of the new fancy libraries in Istanbul, I think of that distant room in Anatolia. I think of my readers, those loyal visitors of the library, who found happiness in the solitude provided by the pages of a book. Even under the gun, they could find reflections of their lives and dreams among words on paper — a discovery that made me an even firmer believer in the strange and limitless charm of books.

Image Courtesy of the Author.

Mario Vargas Llosa and the Heart of Roger Casement

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The Dream of the Celt first appeared in Spanish in November 2010, three weeks after Mario Vargas Llosa, its author, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Like many of his fans, my expectations were high. The little amount of information I could gather about its plot was sufficient to hint at a return to form for Vargas Llosa whose latest novels, The Bad Girl and The Way to Paradise didn’t show him, in my eyes, at the top of his game. My once-favorite contemporary author has always liked to fictionalize culturally loaded eras in relation to historically significant characters who make them. It was strange to see Vargas Llosa fail with his tale of a radical chic, in The Bad Girl, and with Paul Gauguin, in The Way to Paradise. This time though, he seemed to have made a better match: the fin de siècle/Edwardian England and Roger Casement, a martyr to some of that period’s defining causes: anti-colonialism, homosexuality and Irish republicanism.

Vargas Llosa’s novel opens in 1916 in a cell in Pentonville Prison, where Oscar Wilde was held during his trials two decades previously. Convicted to death by hanging, Casement awaits the result of his appeal against the sentence. Outside his cell, a public campaign has attracted attention to his case and among the signatories for the clemency are G. K. Chesterton, John Galsworthy, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was responsible for gathering the signatures. One doesn’t need to be a historian to know the outcome of the appeal, as the book’s back cover informs us about Casement’s fate: he was hung on August 3.

Joseph Conrad’s signature is a notable absence in Doyle’s list. It is not only notable, but also unexpected, as Casement and Conrad, who first met in Congo in 1889, had a lifelong friendship which came to an abrupt end with Casement’s trial. They were disillusioned with Western civilization and coming from peripheral backgrounds, they were both vulnerable subjects of the empire.

Despite the mouthwateringly interesting nature of this friendship, Vargas Llosa, who devotes many pages to describing their encounters, leaves the question, which kept many Conrad and Casement biographers busy, unanswered. Being both outsiders of the British establishment, how could these two men have differed so dramatically at the time of Casement’s trial in 1916?

Born in Dublin in 1864, Casement, like Conrad, lost both his parents in his childhood and was raised by his uncle before he became a clerk in England. An extremely handsome man with curly hair and a pointed beard, Casement led an increasingly public life — not that of a novelist, but that of a consul, in which capacity he would later become a public campaigner for human rights.

Assisting King Leopold’s International Association for the Congo in 1884, when he was only 20 years old, Casement led the life of an adventurer in his youth. When he went back to Congo at the end of the decade, he was responsible for recruiting natives for a railway project which was planned to link Congo to Matadi, in order to make the job of carrying rubber, the leading export of the region, easier for the colonizers.

During his administrative tenure in Congo Free State, Casement became a lucid witness to the atrocities in the region, which he meticulously recorded in his diaries and reports. Ruled under the authority of Belgium’s King Leopold, Congo Free State was, for Casement, capitalism at its worst. Rubber was collected through slave labour and the treatment of natives by Belgium’s military personnel was often ruthless if not outright barbaric. He witnessed how slaves were made to drink defecations of soldiers; natives who were often chained together and were beaten with rifles until they fell to the ground. Hands were occasionally cut from the wrist, as a punishment for inactivity or rebellion, and skulls of murdered natives were used as ornaments by Belgian officials.

Seen by his colleagues as a sophisticated, trustworthy, and reserved gentleman, Casement had little reason to turn his observations into an official report the damning conclusions of which might have been disadvantageous for his own reputation and career. Nevertheless, Casement took detailed notes of his experiences and it was during this second period in Congo that he first met Conrad, then a thirtyish sailor, who reached Matadi after a voyage on board the ship Ville de Maceio.

Like Casement, who detailed his experiences in a private notebook, Conrad kept, for the first and only time in his life, a diary which became one of his earliest English texts, later christened as “The Congo Diary” by Conradian scholars. Describing his first impressions of his new acquaintance, he described Casement as a man who “thinks, speaks well, most intelligent and very sympathetic.” Conrad and Casement then shared a hut for almost a month during which time they found ample opportunity to exchange their often horrific experiences in the region. Conversing with a native speaker of the English language delighted Conrad who was struggling to write proper English for his future literary projects.

Also impressed with Casement’s ability to speak native tongues and the ease with which he could navigate in an area he found impossibly foreign, Conrad had nothing but admiration for his new friend. “He could tell you things,” he wrote, “things I’ve tried to forget; thing I never did know.” Readers of Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s most famous tale, will recognize similarities in between Conrad and Marlow; Casement and Kurtz also have a certain resemblance, which may help explain Conrad’s fascination with enigmatic characters whose characters he found difficult to penetrate.

Casement and Conrad went several times on short expeditions in neighboring villages and were equally convinced that the Western presence in Congo was barbarism masquerading as civilization. They didn’t meet again for almost a decade. In 1903, a year after he entered the British consular service, Casement asked for Conrad’s support and his eye-witness account in order to support the activities of Congo Reform Association to which he was engaged. A year later, when Casement visited Conrad in his house in Pent Farm, near Sandgate, they were again on excellent terms.

But unlike Casement, whose campaign for human rights in colonized territories made him a household (and for some, notorious) name throughout England, Conrad had little interest in becoming an overtly political figure. “I would help him but it is not in me,” he wrote following Casement’s invitation for his political engagement in the Congo cause. “I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.” Casement, who read Heart of Darkness with interest and admiration, still pressed for his support and was admitted to use a quote from one of Conrad’s letters where he said: “It is an extraordinary thing that the conscience of Europe which seventy years ago has put down the slave trade on humanitarian grounds tolerates the Congo State to day. It is as if the moral clock had been put back many hours.”

Eventually it was Casement’s later involvement in the Easter Rising, a failed attempt to end British rule in Ireland during the First World War, that led Conrad to change his position in relation to his beloved friend. With German support behind them, Irish Republicans expected to have the arms necessary to begin a revolt against the empire; Casement was among the mediators between the Republicans and their German allies. The German ship, Libau, which carried arms to Irish rebels, was captured by the British navy and was sunk. And days before the rising began, Casement was arrested on suspicion of high treason to the crown.

For Conrad this type of treachery was no laughing matter. His eldest son, Borys, was serving at the Front in northern France and Conrad thought it was the worst time imaginable to begin an upheaval in Britain, the country that had provided a safe home to him and his family. It was partly due to this feeling of outrage that in a letter written almost three decades after their first encounter, Conrad could describe Casement as a man “of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid, I mean that he was all emotion.” He could admire outright rebellion to power but plotting beneath the disguise of a member of the British consular service, was a different matter — it was hypocrisy.

In fact, Casement had already left his official post and had little sympathy for a violent upheaval that Conrad feared would take place. But the British crown had to make an example of the man and unlike Doyle, Conrad had little interest in getting to the truth of the matter. His distant, cold, and almost patronizing view of the imprisoned man (“no mind and all emotion”) shows Conrad, the great analyzer of the “treacherous” Jim, at his worst.

The Dream of the Celt is perhaps the polar opposite of Conrad’s description of its subject matter — a book of almost no emotion and all intelligence. From Vargas Llosa’s treatment, Casement and Conrad emerge as figures cut out from biographies and scholarly works. Reading this novel is an experience comparable to that of walking around wax figures of eminent Victorians in Madame Tussauds. Those characters certainly do look like Casement and Conrad, but lacking vitality, color, and authenticity, they strike the reader as being little more than wax figures.

The chief fault lies in Vargas Llosa’s failure to imagine Casement as a figure distinct from his representation in historical texts. One scene sees Conrad thanking Casement for his friendship; patting him on the shoulder, Conrad confesses that without Casement’s assistance he could never have written Heart of Darkness. But the gesture doesn’t seem genuine and reads more like a nod to the student of literature who is already informed about Conrad’s work and Casement’s influence on it.

As he waits for the outcome of the appeal, the ghostly image of Conrad haunts Casement time after time in his prison cell: “As he lay on the cot on his back, his eyes closed, Joseph Conrad came to mind again. Would he have felt better if the former sailor had signed the petition?” In fact, Casement’s obsession with Conrad brings to mind Vargas Llosa’s own involvement in human rights campaigns which, for some critics who shared Conrad’s suspicion against political engagements, were seen as activities that distracted the author from writing good novels.

His interest in Casement’s relationship with Conrad therefore reminded me of Vargas Llosa’s political journalism and his non-fiction book, Making Waves, in which he collected his essays. Among them is “The Story of a Massacre,” which details Vargas Llosa’s efforts to solve the mystery behind one of the most notorious atrocities that took place in his country. In 1983, eight Peruvian journalists went to Uchuraccay, a rural village in Peru, in order to write about human rights abuses reported to take place in the area. They were attacked with axes, killed, and buried by the villagers. No one exactly knew what happened and, from the bits of information he could gather from newspaper accounts, Vargas Llosa could tell something was amiss. He then headed a commission to investigate the incident and, outside an official report, wrote this lengthy essay about his findings that was published in English in an issue of Granta that year. In “The Story of a Massacre,” he offered a picture of two civilizations in deep disaccord. According to his conclusion, peasants had mistook cameras for machine guns and saw the journalists as guerrillas who threatened their lives.

This type of political engagement and interest in documenting atrocities might partly explain Vargas Llosa’s admiration for Casement as a writer and historical figure. But apart from portraying Casement as “one of us”, The Dream of the Celt fails at re-imagining Casement as a fictional character with the same profundity one finds in Conrad’s protagonists, such as Jim, Marlow, and Kurtz.

In a commemorative poem entitled “Roger Casement,” the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats immortalized his fellow patriot with the following lines: “I say that Roger Casement / Did what he had to do. / He died upon the gallows, / But that is nothing new. / Afraid they might be beaten / Before the bench of Time, / They turned a trick by forgery / And blackened his good name. / A perjurer stood ready / To prove their forgery true; / They gave it out to all the world, / And that is something new.” Vargas Llosa’s fictional rendering of Casement’s life sadly falls short of producing a book that says something new about the great man. While Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which scarcely refers to names of historical figures it depicts, manages to reach the dark heart of Kurtz, its subject matter, The Dream of the Celt leaves its protagonist exactly as it finds it. A little understood and strange man who remains for us, as he did for his contemporaries, a mystery.

Orhan Pamuk’s Unlikely New Role 


In less than a fortnight, Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel Laureate in literature, made headlines in Turkish newspapers not once, but twice. It would have been an ordinary thing a few years ago when Pamuk, commonly perceived as one of Turkey’s major political dissidents, would make news with his comments on the killings of Armenians in 1915 or the Turkish state’s heavy handed treatment of its Kurdish minority. But this time newspapers seem to have discovered a new aspect of Turkey’s most famous writer: his private life.

When Pamuk, who has a daughter from his first marriage that ended a decade ago, started dating Indian novelist Kiran Desai in 2010, photographs of the couple walking on a Goa beach in India were published by a mainstream newspaper edited by one of Pamuk’s old political enemies. Pamuk and Desai were quickly named as a power couple, one journalist calling them Mr. Nobel and Miss Booker. But after two books (Museum of Innocence and The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, both containing Pamuk’s words of gratitude to Desai for helping him with the final English texts) and numerous interviews accompanying the Turkish edition of Desai’s Booker prize-winning Inheritance of Loss (all of them focusing on details of their relationship rather than Desai’s novel), Turkish media seemed to have lost interest.

That was until this December, when a young Turkish artist was photographed alongside Pamuk in New York’s Columbus Circle mall. The following week, newspapers were covered with pictures of her paintings and a full page interview in the daily Sabah, whose American version first published the photographs, had the very Flaubertian headline: “I am Füsun from Museum of Innocence!” This was a reference to Pamuk’s latest novel where the protagonist, engaged to be married, begins an affair with a younger girl, who journalists were now eager to identify as having been inspired by Pamuk’s new girlfriend. Among readers of the interview were Pamuk’s loyal fans who hoped to learn bits of information about his new novel which will reportedly be published in Turkish this year. It tells the story of a street vendor who sells “boza,” a traditional Turkish beverage, and there was speculation as to whether the cover of the book would be produced by Pamuk’s new girlfriend, who has painted portraits of boza sellers in the past.

The latest piece of news, the most surprising to date, was published on the last day of the year. It alleged that Pamuk had an “illegitimate son” from a German professor specializing in Turkish literature. Pamuk is claimed to have never seen his son, who is now five years old. These dramatic claims were made by “an old girlfriend of Pamuk,” whose name was carefully left out of the piece.

Turkish newspapers made life very difficult for Pamuk in 2005 when he was turned into a hate figure by the ultra-nationalist Ergenekon gang which is claimed to include, alongside retired generals, solicitors, and politicians, a number of journalists who orchestrated campaigns against Turkey’s dissident figures, labeling them as traitors and enemies of the country. During 1990s right-wing newspapers were notorious for their portrayal of Kurdish and socialist intellectuals: many artists, like the singer Ahmet Kaya, were forced to leave the country after editors made a habit of picking on them. Last year a Kurdish MP was forced to resign after photographs showing him with a girlfriend were published in the papers.

With their newfound “private” methods, editors seem to have inflicted a deep wound as they turned the famously reserved Orhan Pamuk, whose political views continue to disturb the ultra nationalists, into a playboy figure in just a few weeks. It looks like an attempt by editors to exact revenge by hitting him below the belt. For Pamuk’s loyal readers, all this surely reads like one of Pamuk’s own novels which always feature him as a character, but the serious point to be made here is that Turkish media’s attempts to trivialize dissidents by focusing on their private lives has a touch of the News of the World scandal about it, and this new tactic will probably be a new cause of concern for Turkey’s dissidents this year.