Word and Mirror: Burhan Sönmez’s “Labyrinth,” Translated from Turkish by Ümit Hussein


By Sevinç Türkkan


9781590510988Modern Turkish literature in English translation has always been meager. The Turkish language and culture with their liminal position across the imaginary East-West divide have been a cause for anxiety, reluctance, and uncertainty for publishers. It is, however, encouraging to see that contemporary writers other than the giants of Turkish letters in the West, Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, are made accessible to a wider audience in English translation. Among them are writers such as Latife Tekin, Aslı Erdoğan, Kemal Vural, Barış Bıçakçı, and Burhan Sönmez who began their careers after the 1980 military coup and whose writings have critically engaged with the consequences of this violent military intervention and with the prolonged authoritarian regime of President Recep T. Erdoğan. Certainly, translation publishing is a fraught enterprise where publishers need to negotiate a meager profit from acquiring translation copyrights on the one hand and aesthetic and cultural concerns on the other. Nevertheless, Burhan Sönmez’s powerful pen and Ümit Hussein’s skillful translation seem to have convinced Other Press to pursue the publication of Labyrinth originally published in Istanbul in 2018. The book is an excellent investment.

~

I regard even my own face in the mirror as a stranger. I’m like a blank sheet of paper. I have no inside and no outside. My east and west are hazy, as are my south and north. No matter where I step, I feel as though I am about to tumble into a void. I spend my days waiting for night to fall. After I have taken my medicine with a glass of water I close my eyes, hoping my past will come back to me while I am sleeping; I start counting. Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three… I wonder if the directions, the names and paintings in my past existence are all in the right place. Was I in the right place in the past? (15)

These probing words belong to Boratin, the main character of Sönmez’s most recent novel. The 28-year-old blues musician attempts suicide by jumping off the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, wakes up in the hospital with a broken rib and without a memory of his past. The novel is a poignant and poetic reflection, a narrative ode one may say, to the pain of living in the present, without recollections of one’s past and therefore without a future. The novel tackles some of the most existential questions we are grappling with today: individual and cultural amnesia, the meaning of living in a perpetual present, the implication of these for individuals and societies, the difference between past and history, the concept of time, the rift between the mind and the body, and alienation. The narrative is interwoven with fables, close and distant voices, and lyrics to help Boratin make sense of his empty present and piece together his past. The stories within the story, those sudden moments of illumination that function like a metacommentary, recall the Anatolian tradition of storytelling in which Sönmez grew up.

It is ironic and yet understandable that the most compelling contemporary literature in Turkish is being penned by Turkey’s citizens of Kurdish ethnicity––the same citizens who have been discriminated, persecuted, and exposed to violence since the 1980s. Sönmez is not an exception. He has already established himself as a master of intertwining narratives, stories, times, and places with his previous novels North (2009), Sins and Innocents (2011), and Istanbul, Istanbul (2015), not to overlook his foray into translating William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell into Turkish.

The blurry distant image of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque on the cover of Labyrinth––architectural icons of the city of Istanbul––suggests this is going to be yet another Istanbul novel. Sönmez pleasantly surprises us with a story less culturally specific and more universal in the kinds of questions it poses. The dreamlike narrative consists of seven chapters each divided into three short jewel-like sections that would pique any filmmaker’s imagination. Boratin is both the subject and the object of scrutiny. The narrative stream segues elegantly between the first-person narrator, Boratin’s “I,” to the third-person narrator, and occasionally refers to Boratin and the reader as “you.” This shift captures poetically Boratin’s struggle to come to terms with his “I,” his blank mind, mechanic body, the image of the stranger in the mirror, and the person others expect him to be. At the end of the book, the reader finds a “Timeline of Some Dates in Labyrinth and in Turkey,” a list of dates that establish a concrete link between the fictional world of the novel and the factual world of human history. Preceding the “Timeline” is a “Glossary” of the terms the translator has decided to leave untranslated in the narrative.

The title’s allusion to Jorge Luis Borges’s collection of stories Labyrinths is confirmed by two epigraphs that precede the novel: “It only takes two facing mirrors to construct a labyrinth” by Borges and “It is not man who discovers the word, it is the word that comes to him” by Pastor Edouard de Montmollin’s sermon at Borges’s funeral. Word and mirror, language and alienation underscore Boratin’s sad story and provoke his poetic reflections. The word “labyrinth” refers not only to a physical space, “a place from which one cannot escape” but also to a frame of mind, in the sense of struggling with “a complicated idea, question or argument” (OED). This definition succinctly describes the state in which Boratin finds himself: he has lost his memory and found himself in a complex physical maze he needs to navigate to find his way “home.”

At the same time, the fact that he and us––the readers––will never find out the reason for his suicide attempt suggests an environment and culture, a deliberately designed and constructed complex, that induces suicide. Sönmez honors Borges and builds on Latin American narrative style and technique to depict a global disenfranchisement of the individual. Boratin’s record collection showcases Bessie Smith, Kurt Cobain, and Yavuz Çetin––musicians who died young, Cobain and Çetin by committing suicide. Boratin’s doctor consoles him: “Whatever your past story may be, perhaps what you wanted was to get away from some aspect of this world. You were bold enough to attempt it, and you even succeeded. You fulfilled your objective in a way you could never have imagined. By taking a leap off the Bospohorus Bridge…” (5-6). Is this a radical way of breaking away with the past? A profound way of forgetting? Active resistance to remembering? Even as Boratin’s story intersects with the personal memories of other characters, with their own entangled relationship to the past, and by extension, with the collective memory of the city, the novel does not provide clear-cut answers.

~

Some of the most poignant moments of Boratin’s story take place in the confinement of his apartment where he embarks on a minute investigation of every single object in it and their relation to collective time and individual memory. His gaze stops at the white clock hanging on the mantelpiece next to the figurine of Jesus and Mary. He disassembles it: “I realize that [the dial] only goes forward. When I turn it backwards it comes loose. I don’t bother trying to make sense of that” (157). What follows is a lyrical probing of the meaning of time, individual memory, and collective history:

Time in the cogs both moves forward and goes round and round in the same place. If I could figure out how that’s possible I might be able to figure out life too. Why does the pain of crucifixion from two thousand years ago continue this day? Why does the throbbing in my rib come from deep down, as though it’s the continuation of an old pain? I think of Hayala’s words: There is a difference between past and history. While everyone is trying to give you a past, what they’re actually giving you is a history. In the former everything is alive, in the latter it’s dead. Yes but how can I tell the two apart? If I asked my doctor she would prescribe new medicines. If I asked Bek, he would look at me with concern. If I asked Hayala she would kiss me. If I asked my sister she would say, I miss you. I miss her too, but I don’t know what it is that I miss. (159)

Friends, a distant voice of a sister on the phone, objects, locations, lyrics, stories, encounters, and the discord of the city constitute the tunnels of the labyrinth Boratin needs to navigate. The city is haunted by its premodern architecture and by its Greek residents and culture. Band members convene at “Teodora’s Tavern.” The streets and cafes of Istanbul are crowded, parks haunted by beggars and strangers, the Bosphorus Bridge overwhelmed by traffic, the enormous shopping malls compress the city under a single glass roof. None of these console Boratin in his attempt to piece together his past.

A final attempt takes him in a cab ride across the Bosporus Bridge to Haydarpaşa railway station from where he will travel home to Nehirce, his hometown in Anatolia. In his blank mind, Haydarpaşa still runs. In reality, the station has been closed for some time and remains just another tourist attraction following a suspicious fire in 2010. The Bosphorus bridge physically connects the two continents of Europe and Asia, the two sides of the city of Istanbul and of Turkey, the narrative suggests. Yet, it fails to connect cultural divides. The city’s gateway to Asia and Anatolia, Haydarpaşa railway station, is closed (a symbol of Istanbul’s indifference to what lays on its East) and with it, Boratin’s access to his past. This interpretation is reinforced by a potential question the reader asks: “Is Nehirce an actual destination?”

Translation theory (from Friedrich Schleiermacher to Antoine Berman and Lawrence Venuti) has often used the terms “domestication” or “foreignization” to refer, respectively, to fluent translations that override the work’s cultural and linguistic specificity and those that observe closely the otherness of the original text. Needless to say, successful translations strike a balance between these two extremes. Ümit Hussein’s translation has accomplished this task. The translation is unburdened by extraneous footnotes and explanations. The translator has avoided flattening cultural expressions such as “Abla,” “Nana,” “simit,” “raki,” “saz,” “meze,” “pişmaniye,” “ezan” in the English. Instead, she seems to expect that the curious reader will look them up! The poetic passages quoted above should suffice to demonstrate the skill this translator has exercised in rendering with equal if not exceeding lyricism Sönmez’s Turkish. It is unfortunate that the publisher did not include the translator’s name on the cover of the book.

Sönmez, Burhan. Labyrinth. Translated by Ümit Hussein. Other Press, 2019.


Sevinç Türkkan is a translator from Turkish and a professor of comparative literature. Her translation of The Stone Building and Other Places by Aslı Erdoğan was a finalist for the 2019 PEN Translation Prize.

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