April 15, 2013

Novels for wannabe civil servants


Turkey is the London Book Fair’s focus country this week, and the wheels of media are correspondingly turning, with a “blagger’s guide to Turkish literature” in the Independent (“blagger” presumably means “smooth talker,” but you never know with those crazy Brits and their constantly evolving, slang-heavy, illogically-spelled version of English), an article in Publishing Perspectives on the under-representation of Turkish writers who write in other languages, such as Kurdish, at the fair, and the full slate of events up at the LBF’s website, including panels like “Literature and Film in Turkey: Competitors or Collaborators?” (during which I hope some filmmakers and writers seriously duke it out) and “Poetry and Crime” (ditto the duking).

But perhaps most interesting so far is Kaya Genç’s piece at the PEN Atlas blog about the ideological roots of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Turkish literature, specifically the books he was assigned to read in school and that he came to hate, describing them as of interest to “almost no one (apart from wannabe civil servants).” The writers in question were civil servants themselves, well-placed officials in the Ottoman Empire, and, in Genç’s account, they realized the power their writing could have in influencing a country in transition, as Turkey went through the Tanzimat, a period of top-down centralization and modernization of the empire. The realization was borne out, not only in the legions of bored schoolchildren forced to read novels that woodenly laid out good and bad paths through modernization, but also in enusing laws and “Freedom Courts” that punished any form of dissent.

Genç writes that the prominence of this school of writing also meant that great and intriguing swathes of earlier Turkish literature were not taught.

In those classes there was almost no reference to great humorists of the Middle Ages, like Nasreddin Hoca, nor were we acquainted with the works of Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi, the influential mystic and poet. We didn’t know much about Divan poetry, the elaborately composed verse poems that existed for almost half a millennium, and great folkloric poets like Yunus Emre were not properly studied.

This is a mouthwatering group of writers and forms, and the disparity between what was taught and what was missed can in fact be demonstrated with a visual aid. Who do you want to read more

  this guy                               OR                                  this guy

Namık Kemal and Nasreddin, respectively. And it’s the Nasreddins of the world that, from a curious outsider’s perspective, turn a generalized interest in a country’s literature into the thing we’re always looking for as readers: the great discovery, the great love affair, the new and besotted Nasreddin enthusiast, the kinship across time and space and donkeys. Let’s hope the LBF helps more of this happen.

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.