Now you see it – or rather now you think you do – now you don’t. And even if you do see it all, and there are tiny holes here and there, it will not diminish the delight of reading this classic of modern Turkish literature, which although first published to a muted response in Turkey in the 1940s was revived there more than three years ago and has remained a bestseller ever since. It resonates with literary allusions and has a message that Turkish youth has apparently adopted with rare fervour.
Sabahattin Ali (1907-48) may not be the most familiar of literary figures to western readers, but he was a major voice in 20th-century Turkey as a newspaper owner and editor. He was highly political, suffered imprisonment for sedition and was deemed sufficiently dangerous by the authorities to have been murdered in 1948 while crossing the border into Bulgaria, possibly during interrogation by the national secret service. No one knows what really happened, nor have the whereabouts of his remains ever been located.
Considering his background as a socialist dissident, Ali may not seem the most likely author of this gorgeously melancholic romance featuring a timid antihero and an infuriatingly independent femme fatale with a world-weary attitude to the ways of men. Yet he wrote it in 1943, using the often suspect, invariably self-conscious device of a novel within a novel. The main narrator has something in common with F Scott FitzGerald’s Nick Carraway, in that they both learn a great deal about human nature through the experiences of a person who comes to interest them.
Yet in the case of Ali’s narrator, an unemployed clerk in need of work who meets up by chance with an old school pal who gets him a job, his interest, in a passive older man, begins to grow only after he has already decided that his new colleague is so boring as to be one of those people who provoke the question: “What logic compels them to keep breathing?”
How wrong first judgments can prove. The downtrodden worker spends his days translating from the German and is so ineffectual that even the typists ignore his requests. Yet the narrator catches a chance glimmer of the true man behind Raif Efendi’s despair, and a friendship develops. It introduces him to Raif’s ramshackle home life, where he is expected to support an ungrateful extended family.
Pieces of the puzzle emerge when the narrator is entrusted with destroying a diary. Mere mention of an impending handover to the journal could cause a reader to mutter, “Oh, come on!” But the narration then shifts to the diary’s author and an enticing portrait of 1920s Berlin, which Ali knew well. The young Raif finds himself submerged in culture and intent on, if equally terrified of, romance. “So this is Europe,” he thinks, and Ali cleverly juxtaposes the West and the East, most intriguingly in gender politics.
His nervous antihero is also endeavouring to master German, while reading Russian writers, such as Turgenev, whose “great stories” he reads “in one sitting”. Possibly deliberately, there are hints of Turgenev’s bitter miniature, First Love (1860). Although the diary evokes a Berlin which is part Isherwood, part Roth, Raif dates his account in June 1933, a significant moment in history, just months after Hitler became German chancellor.
When the innocent, if intense, Raif becomes obsessed with a self-portrait, there appears no hope for him when he meets the original. Just when it seems a reprise of Wolfgang Koeppen’s A Sad Affair (1934; 2003) is building up towards ironies Ali moves from tantalising banter being showered on a besotted suitor to agonising profundity in the face of lost opportunities.
This is a most welcome first English translation of a cautionary tale certain to beguile.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent