Review: Istanbul Istanbul, Burhan Sönmez

by Luke Frostick



“They were hopelessly in love with bygone eras, but they had scorned the city where they opened their eyes every morning. They heaped concrete upon concrete and built domes that mimicked one another. They demolished, they smashed, then, when they returned home exhausted, they went to sleep with a pretty painting of Istanbul above their heads.”

Istanbul Istanbul



In a dungeon deep below Istanbul four political prisoners, The Doctor, Demirtay The Student, Uncle Küheylan and Kamo The Barber are locked up. Everyday they are taken away to be tortured. Starving, frozen and running out of hope, they tell each other stories to pass the time and keep themselves something close to sane.

It is within this confined dungeon that the narrative takes place. Over the course of a few days, the prisoners of varied professions, origins and ages tell each other stories about Istanbul, stories from the distant past, fables, jokes, riddles and the tales from their own lives that lead up to their incarceration and torture.  These stories - some made-up, some real - and the interactions between the inmates are mixed together. It is left up to the reader to work out the complex lives of the four individuals, their histories and personalities. 

It is also the story of the characters during their time in prison, about them clinging to hope, supporting each other to survive the un-survivable. It follows them as they dream of freedom, or at least the absence of pain. Each character responds to their situation differently, the plot takes the reader with the characters as they sink into nihilism or escape into the imaginary. All of them verge on the edges of madness. These two separate lines of story telling both mesh together perfectly while the divergences, vignettes and fables don't distract from the events taking place in the prison. The chapters start with one of the tales of Istanbul which fades  back to the harsh realities within the cell and the prisoners. The book is told from first person with each of the four prisoner's perspective in rotation.   

The torture in the book harkens back to older, darker times in Turkish history. However, the novel is not set in a definite time and characters' stories of Istanbul range through its long history. That being said, it is clear that the city he is describing is a modern one, with helicopters, reckless construction projects and traffic.

The ferry sailed through a hazy sea known as time, heading slowly towards the era of the knifelike skyscrapers on the far shore of the sea.

Passages like this one evoke the feeling of the new cities like Levent and Şişli, and now that political imprisonment is becoming a reality within Turkey once again, I couldn't help feel Sönmez is being darkly speculative.

Taking a slight detour, torture is a difficult device to use in fiction; it can be overused or understated. Balance, as so often is the case, is key. Because the story only takes place within the cell, potentially gratuitous scenes are left out. Not that Sönmez shies away from it either: we see the results of the torture from the wounds that the prisoners attend to when one of their number comes back bloodied and bruised, or when one of the characters wants to tell the others about their experience. By not going into too much detail, the reader never gets desensitized to the horrific violence. It looms over the story, the characters and their thoughts, much like Istanbul itself.

Istanbul is a city that unsurprisingly features in the work of Turkey's greatest writers, capturing the essence of the city and the people who live here has been an obsession for the likes of Pamuk and Tanpinar. But Istanbul is a complicated place and even these two giants of Turkish literature would probably have to admit that their work doesn't capture the full scale of the city but focuses in on smaller aspects of it. This task may well be impossible but Sönmez takes a good crack at it. Despite his time away from Istanbul in exile, the sentiment he displays through his character shows that he is clearly a creature of Istanbul (if the tittle didn't give that away), somebody who knows the city well. Sönmez loves the city and every tale the prisoners tell and every beautiful description of the Bosphorus testifies to that. A moment that I found exemplifies this is the prisoners holding an imaginary rakı and balık party overlooking the Golden Horn and the historic peninsula, the imagery is so evocative that both the reader and the prisoners are able to escape the cell to an altogether more comfortable version of the city. It seems to me that the writer, vicariously through his characters is expressing in part anger, confusion and amusement with regards to Istanbul. Anybody who has ever lived in the city will instantly recognise the contradictions, outrages and frustrations shown in this book and greet them with a melancholy simile.

The book shows very little enthusiasm towards modern development projects and construction, a sentiment that I couldn’t have agreed more with. It could be said that this obsession with Istanbul could limit it to quite an exclusive audience but I would argue that, as with all great literature, it transcends simple place. I believe that the messages of the book, the experiences and stories of the characters resonate beyond one city or one time. Indeed that could well have been part of the author’s intent.

Ian McEwan in his fantastic short story My Purple Scented Novel describes the feeling after reading a great book as one of gratitude (you can read it here). It’s a sentiment I keep coming back to when thinking about literature and I definitely felt it this time. Istanbul Istanbul is an ambitious book but also a humble one, a warning about the cruelty of people and governments but also the warmth and hope of storytelling and humanity. It’s a must read for anybody familiar with the city and a profound meditation on the human condition for anybody who isn’t. This is one of the strongest novels I’ve read all year.




You can find Istanbul Istanbul here.