Review: Berji Kristin: Tales From The Garbage Hills, Latife Tekin
By Luke Frostick
Good riddance trucks
Somewhere in the suburbs of an unnamed city, the poorest of the poor subsist on the garbage hills. They build shacks out of bits of cardboard and wood only to have them knocked down by thugs. They look for work and find themselves exploited by the factory workers. They look for love, but find themselves trapped in cycles of abuse. They try to raise families, but the wasteland they call their home poisons their children and the wind carries them away in the night.
This isn’t the story of one person, it is the story of a place. It charts the growth of the community’s living on the “Garbage Hills”, from a set of tumble-down shacks to the functioning village of flower hill, all-be it a village with rivers of warm blueish water running through it and chemical snow being blasted out of the nearby factories.
The blurb of the book describes the story as a dark fairy tale, but I don’t think that is quite right. It is more like reading an oral history, where urban myths and legends mix seamlessly together with records and accounts.
The story does have characters of course, some fair some foul, all flawed by the world that they live in, but their stories only matter as part of the greater whole. Characters like Güllü baba, Kurd Kemal or Garbage Chief have wins and losses, lessons learned and unhappy endings, they fade in and out of the greater story of the community. It is as if it Flower Hill itself is the main character going through its own development arc and the humans who inhabit it are just part of its narrative. It is a unique way to write a novel and for the most part it works.
A writer has to be very careful when dealing with communities experiencing extreme poverty. The book has to be visceral and gritty without being exploitative or leery, with the fact that its inhabitants are not educated and make bad choices, while not being condescending and hi-light their resilience and humanity without being patronising. It is a hard balance to strike and Latife Tekin pulls it of without blinking or hedging.
The book fits into a tradition of socially-conscious writing, using literature to display the plight of people in poverty, bringing their experience to life in a visceral way. Last month I reviewed Cemile by Orhan Kemal, which approaches the same theme in a very different way, choosing to write a story in a very grounded and realistic style with a focus on an extremely specific community of Bosnian immigrants. That both books choose to deal with the same subject matter in such different ways highlights the important point that the people on the lowest rungs of society struggle for what the rest of us take for granted. Thinking about both novels together reminded me that the concerns of those at the very bottom of the pile didn’t change very much in the years between 1952 and 1983. We would be wise to assume that the same is true to this day.
Berji Kristin: Tales From The Garbage Hills has been described as magic realism but that description did not work for me. I don’t think this is a book that fits easily into any neat genre categorisation. It is a novel that is meant to challenge, though not an easy read, one that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.
You can find Berji Kristin: Tales From The Garbage Hills here.