My Istanbul: Writer Burhan Sönmez on "the capital of the world"
How long does it take to know a city? Three days or three generations? The prize-winning writer reflects on his relationship with the multi-faceted city, as his latest novel Istanbul Istanbul takes the world by storm.
It is a toilsome task to write about a city that has always been a centre of attraction.
Visiting Istanbul in 1850, the year he began to write Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert called it ‘the capital of the world’ and ‘a human anthill’. Six years later, Herman Melville visited and saw:
Great crowds of all nations… coins of all nations circulate–Placards in four or five languages (Turkish, French, Greek, Armenian)…
You feel you are among the nations… Great curse that of Babel; not being able to talk to a fellow being.
Istanbul has long been defined as the meeting point of East and West, where cultures and civilisations melt in a single pot. Political turmoils that haunt Europe and the Middle East affect Turkish politics as well as cultural life.
"A Babel to some, a Kingdom of Heaven to others"
Intellectuals argue that Turkey is a ship floating East while the people onboard scurry toward the West. Though the city has lost some of its colour in the last century and a half, Flaubert’s ‘human anthill’ is still apt. You can hear many languages spoken in the crowded streets: British and American English, German, Spanish, Kurdish and lately Syrian Arabic.
Tourists and immigrants will encounter many different faces. A Babel to some, a Kingdom of Heaven to others. How then can one truly know and describe this city?
When I decided to write a novel about Istanbul – every author in Turkey is destined to write about it sooner or later – I wanted to unveil Istanbul’s face through stories recounted by four prisoners in a small cell three floors under the ground who, between interrogations and torture, entertain each other with parables and riddles.
Their stories are all about an Istanbul beyond their vision above ground; for them it is a city divided not horizontally, East and West, but vertically. I called my novel Istanbul Istanbul to express those two layers of a single entity; a unity of truth and imagination.
"I was kept in a prison cell like the one I describe in my novel after a military coup"
I was kept in a prison cell like the one I describe in my novel after a military coup when I was a student at university. Years later as a novelist I didn’t want to write the story of that state of emergency, but I wanted to see the city through the eyes of people who were suffering, and place the soul of the city at the centre.
As I wrote the book I thought readers may have a passing interest in the suffering of people from an era we left behind long ago. But due to the greed of certain Turkish political actors we now find our country embroiled in a coup attempt, authoritarian government practices and the spreading fire of radicalism in the Middle East. Coincidentally, those times have come back to life after so many years.
Through the centuries Istanbul’s name has changed from Byzantium to Constantinople, from Polis to Dersaadet, but its destiny has always had the same multi-layeredness and multi-directionality.
The people of Turkey have been victims and perpetrators of their own destiny, just as Hemingway noted in 1922 when he came to Istanbul to report on the Greco-Turkish war.
Istanbul Istanbul is about trying to change that miserable and painful destiny through stories of love and laughter.
Burhan Sönmez is an internationally acclaimed prize-winning novelist whose books have been translated into more than 20 languages. He worked as a human rights lawyer in Istanbul. In 1996 he was seriously injured after being assaulted by police and he moved to the UK for treatment, with the support of Freedom from Torture in London. Sönmez is a member of English PEN and a founding member of the ‘Writers Circle’ at PEN International. He divides his time between Cambridge and Istanbul.
Istanbul Istanbul is published by Telegram Books
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