All war no peace
Hasan Ali Toptas
2015, pp 336, Rs 499
What could be possibly new in a yet another book on war and death? Humanity has always been fascinated, repelled and intrigued by its own warring instincts and has spun many a yarn from time immemorial. And despite all their paeans to heroism, war stories carry deep within their hearts the inconsolable grief of it all. But the diction of that grief, the idiom of its loss and the alphabets of pain have varied across times and spaces.
Hasan Ali Toptas, a name to reckon with in Turkish literature, brings home this mournful music giving it a Syrian/Turkish spin, through the bruised psyche of Ziya Bey in a deeply brooding and melancholic novel titled Reckless. This commendable translation by Maureen Freely and John Angliss, coming two years after the publication of the original in Turkish, offers an effortless read sustaining the tempo of the narrative with sensitivity and ease. This introduction of Toptas to the English speaking world could not have arrived at a more timely hour.
Even as Syria imprints itself into the collective conscience of the world with the escalating refugee crisis and the enormity of violence, this riveting story probes into the lives of soldiers and villages at the Syrian-Turkish border — the scars they carry, the bewildering pain they suffer and inflict in turn, the numbing absurdity of war, its tormented legacy and the utter stupidity of it all. Perhaps it sounds a familiar terrain of human experience and the physical and psychological landscape is unmistakably Kafkaesque. But Toptas anchors his narrative of living on the edge of sanity in a distinctive culture watered by native myths and beliefs, rural eccentricities and simple acts of spite, kindness and vengeance.
He invokes a private world of symbols, sounds and colours involving the reader in a circuitous narration. The plot is a coiled one with stories looping in and out of each other and the text lures you into a bewitching weave of synaesthetic imagination “where the songs of the birds glance off the leaves like sunlight.”
All that Ziya wanted was to return his key to the landlady; but he gets swept into a nightmare of a story she unravels in an atmosphere eerie with veils of cigarette smoke and the silences of an enigmatic maid — where even a pigeon has a touch of evil about it. Soon the familiarity of the everyday wears off into an uncanny glint in your neighbour’s eye, in their curt greetings, in the dirt road nearby, in the mountains far off, in the wind on the trees and the bird on the ledge. Trauma of the trenches leaves the traces of its agony in the remotest village sucking every mote of dust into its vortex.
This is the perennial tale of dehumanisation as an invariable part of military life; the abuse of power nourishing insult, humiliation and fury. And the corrosive effect of gratitude. But all is not lost as it is also a tale of tender friendships which make life liveable and memorable. The bleakness is relieved through Kenan’s sad smiles. And there are certain happy surprises in store by way of certain twists and turns in the narrative, particularly towards the end when the third person narration leaps into the hands of the ‘I’, deepening the sense of the surreal. Fantasy and memory are worked into each other and the boundaries are thin between dreams, delusions and reality. We move through different states of consciousness and each is as significant as the other. As Binnaz Hanim puts it searingly, every character is trying to find her own story and has “pecked so hard at my memories, you’d think I was a starving chicken, hunting for one last morsel of food.”
This is a tale of war and peace in the 21st century with none of the grand passion and glorious halos but heavily crushing in its sense of helplessness and pathos. It is the shame in the soldier’s eyes — eyes that always look away from the hurt it causes, the shame of guilt and meaningless cruelty that splinters the narrative into a thousand shards of moans, laments and sobs. The crazed mind of Ziya, an average soldier traumatised by war and brutalised by his superiors, bereaved of a wife and child killed in a terrorist attack could be the mind of any one of us — a mind which has stopped trying to make sense of the suffering. There is a low animal like moan Toptas evokes from the people who are trying to flee through the borders in the dead of the night. A ‘whoop’ slicing through the night air thick with heat and mosquitoes is sadly the signature tune of a refugee existence — desperate and mournful.
The novel, which is a recipient of English Pen award, has alternately frustrated and enchanted reviewers by its labyrinthine maze. But it is time for the Pamuk fan to meet another storyteller from the Turkish lands and experience a different magic.