Reviewed by Amanda Sarasien
Motherland Hotel, Turkish writer Yusuf Atilgan’s (1921-1989) first novel to appear in English, is a shape-shifting tour de force, a stumble through a noirish house of mirrors. For his boldness of voice, his brilliant defiance of form, and his penetrating insight into the human condition, Yusuf Atilgan merits a place in the English-language canon, among the world’s most daring modernists, and one can only hope this new release, from City Lights Books, will be followed up without delay by a translation of Atilgan’s other complete novel, Aylak Adam (The Flâneur). For, in this narrative – which, in the space of a slim volume, feels to the reader like several books in one – Atilgan proves himself in absolute control, with fist firmly closed around technique. Punctuating Zeberjet’s mundane routine with Faulknerian stream of consciousness, the author employs such varied tools as parentheses (which at times devolve into brackets, then braces, as Zeberjet takes the reader ever deeper into his own thoughts, becoming further isolated from his surrounding reality), italics, and tense changes, to masterfully trace the meanderings of the solitary mind. Such was the challenge presented to the translator, Fred Stark: To keep track of tense and closed parentheses in passages which stretch for pages before returning to the external “action,” would, alone, keep any reader on her toes. Stark rises to the occasion by producing a text both exacting in its detail and so atmospheric as to verge on the cinematic. Indeed, Atilgan, via Stark’s formidable translation, has arguably taken literature into depths for which the medium of film was traditionally best equipped, using text to explore point of view, distort time, in short to penetrate the shadowy recesses of consciousness. (It is no surprise, then, that a Turkish film was made of Motherland Hotel in 1986.)
The first of this novel’s two mirror-faces is the book’s opening, a dreamlike lumbering through Zeberjet’s daily routine, simultaneously weighed down with excruciating detail, and insubstantial, unreal. Every event or material object evokes for Zeberjet some mental association, slipping him out of the moment, spiriting him away from the reality he seems reluctant to face. Thus, the reader, lulled by the narrative’s quotidian cadence, suddenly finds herself years in the past reliving some memory or flung into an imagined future, drifting back and forth between Zeberjet’s interior and the book’s anchoring reality as imperceptibly as the protagonist. As the narrative begins, amid confused time sequences, the woman on the delayed train from Ankara has already checked out, and the hotel manager lovingly relives every word in their sparse exchanges (written as lines of dialogue fused with Zeberjet’s inner voice, yet another of Atilgan’s brilliant modernist innovations). Why he is so convinced she will return, the narrative gives no hint, but his otherwise monotonous duties become weightless with euphoria. Each day he eagerly awaits the end of his shift to visit room number one, where everything is just as she left it, including the light she’d forgotten to turn off, the towel she had left behind, and the dregs of tea remaining at the bottom of her teacup. In the meantime, his only human interaction, apart from the perfunctory transactions with guests checking in and out (in fact, Motherland Hotel seems more densely populated by family memories than by guests), is his daily visit to the maid: Zeberjet makes use of her sleeping frame to fulfill his own sexual needs, with few words uttered between them. While her name is revealed in scenes from Zeberjet’s memories, the narration refers to her only as the maid, as if to suggest that the hotel manager, despite their sexual encounters, does not see her as a prospective companion. Meanwhile, the object of Zeberjet’s desire remains an elusive, nameless figure.
The anticipation Atilgan builds into his methodical presentation of Zeberjet’s routine, makes the novel’s second aspect that much more startling. The shift is not marked, but the difference in tone is stark. Zeberjet, on one of his visits to room number one, breaks the teacup from which the mysterious woman drank, and it is as if the illusion of her promised return breaks with it. Realizing his wait is futile, Zeberjet grows even more desperate for some human connection, culminating in a series of senseless and violent acts. The prose in these passages becomes taut, pessimistic. Even paranoid:
He shivered. Rubbed his chest, neck, arms. Leaving the room he stood for some time in contemplation of the stairwell. A car passing outside on the empty avenue sent a tremor through the hotel. He shook his head and went up. He opened the maid’s door, rubbed his face, reached out and turned the light on. Her head and arms lay uncovered. Generally it had been her feet protruding, the soles black. He went over. Her head was bent to the left with the jugular standing out. He felt under the pillow – still there. He pulled off the quilt and hung it over the bedframe at the foot. Her shift was hiked up, her legs apart. He laid a hand on one leg and slid it up. Warmth. (80-1)
In an arc vaguely reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (with similar existential implications, yet in much-condensed form), Atilgan from this point on makes full use of his avant-garde palette. For example, through italicized prose interpolated, mid-sentence, in a courtroom drama Zeberjet is observing, the reader is thrust even deeper into the protagonist’s spiraling madness, as third-person is exchanged for first and Zeberjet, picturing himself on trial, takes the place of the accused:
“Tell us, now, or it will go hard with you. Speak out! Why did you kill her?”
‘might even be a relief but not all this police coroner prosecutors lawyers judges as for motive these last five days…’
“Did she insult or offend you? Did she strike you?”
‘I haven’t solved that but why a motive at all they need a story either insult or slap silence or obedience something to fit a snug nook strange how this judge reminds me of the R.O. suppose he strangled his daughter or wife…’
“For the record! (At the creaking of seats Zeberjet rose too. A voice near the door to his right said in a half whisper, “You don’t have to stand.”) […]” (105)
In other passages, (marking Stark’s greatest triumph as translator), the already rhythmic prose crystallizes into pure poetic form: The text, a stanza of compound nouns that possess a certain visual and auditory symmetry, takes on a singsong rhythm which perfectly captures Zeberjet’s paranoia as he imagines the torrent of childish insults mentally hurled at him by passersby. And, as he is further consumed by guilt and despair, the syntax achieves a strobe-light effect, illuminating random words as his confused thoughts entangle themselves in an external colloquy he can no longer follow. All of these techniques, together, transform the novel into a psychological thriller: a gritty and distorted underworld, tinged with Gothic eroticism and elements of the surreal, where no one is who he seems and each self is an island adrift in a sea of humanity. The consciousness to which readers are chained remains strangely lucid throughout Zeberjet’s descent, forcing us to contend with one of his final, most unsettling insights into human nature: “They were all alike, though, and all like him. Realize it or not, they had it in them to do whatever a human being was capable of” (127).
Despite this book’s bleak overtones, scattered throughout are moments of wry humor and passages notched with political import, painting a picture of Turkey, circa 1963. The soap opera of Zeberjet’s family history, a melodramatic genealogy nestled among the highlights of Turkish history, would make a fascinating, even epic, novel in its own right. Yet like a variation on a theme, the narrative ultimately returns to a rhythm similar to that of the first section, when Zeberjet was waiting for the return of the woman on the delayed train from Ankara. Disillusioned with humanity, he withdraws to the hotel, a physical manifestation of his enclosed psychological landscape. This time, however, the chords vibrate with a tension which would have sounded strident in the novel’s more hopeful opening, and time seems stretched like liquid rubber. Because, the book may well ask, what is life but a circumscribed span of waiting, suspending us in the agony of existence? A series of repeated routines that, with each revolution, inch the individual closer to life’s end? But if the long-awaited event should prove illusory, what sun do those days of waiting revolve around then? Though the reader will no doubt see the novel’s trajectory well before its devastating conclusion, the final sentences will lay her low with their unsettling lyricism, reverberating like a discordant note she cannot but hear, even as it fades away.
Atilgan, Yusuf. Motherland Hotel. Tr. Fred Stark. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017.