Review: Reckless, Hasan Ali Toptaş
By Luke Frostick
Hasan Ali Toptaş is a writer who many Turkish people have recommended to me and a few have told me that he is their favourite writer. Recently, a few of his books have been translated into English by Maureen Freely and John Angliss, royalty in the world of Turkish translation. Reckless is one of them. From a publisher's point of view you can see why this book would be one worth bringing into English; he is a very well known writer and has won some of the most prestigious literary awards in Turkey. A brief Google search will lead you to favourable comparisons between he and Pamuk and to articles suggesting that he is Turkey’s Kafka. A sound candidate for inclusion in translated Turkish literature's ongoing renaissance.
So does Reckless live up to its reputation? Kind of. It tries to blend surreal and dreamlike elements into what is, otherwise, a quite straightforward plot and it does so with varying results.
Before I really get into it, I should say that I enjoyed Reckless. The main character is sympathetic; the central story, although flawed (I’ll get onto that), is compelling. The descriptions of life in a small Turkish village are believable and evocative, while the middle section relating to his time in the army renders in vivid detail the brutality of conscription and life on Turkey’s south border.
The plot follows Ziya, who is well into middle age, as he moves out of Istanbul to find a more peaceful life in the countryside. The first chapter of the book is a long vignette in which Ziya returns the key of his apartment to his landlady, who keeps him there while she discusses at length her life story and how she came to own the apartment that Ziya has been living in. This chapter is forty pages long and is laden with portent. Here, however, is the problem; the plot doesn't go anywhere. The landlady, her story and her illusions to Ziya being ‘special’ are only referred to again later in the book to suggest that the whole encounter might have been just a dream. Which left me thinking, ‘why should I care then?’ and ‘what was the point of any of this?'
Ziya moves to a small village where his friend from military service Kenan lives. They are further bound together by a common grief, and the time that they spend in the army together where Ziya saved Kenan’s life. The central mystery of the story is that Ziya, to his great distress and despite Kenan referring to it, has no memory of what should have been one of the most important moments in his life. So, while walking in the countryside, Ziya relives his military days, his brutal boot camp training, and his post on the Syrian border. Ziya and Kenan deal with harsh conditions, skirmishes with smugglers, their brutal and corrupt officers, and swarms of mosquitoes in order to remember the favour he did for his friend. This is the story that dominates the middle of the book and it is the part that works best. It’s interesting to read about their procedures, but it’s also nasty and filled with tension. As William Armstrong pointed out in his review of Reckless, this is the section of the book where ‘a more immediate narration’ is used and as result, this whole section of the book is leaner and all the stronger for it.
Following Ziya's time in the army, the plot returns to the village and a new story element emerges about Kenan’s sister and then another important twist that I won’t spoil. The novel builds towards the resolution of these various subplots and reveals the reason why Kenan says Ziya saved his life. The ending itself comes out of nowhere, from a subplot introduced just the chapter before, and is mostly unconnected to the main story.
The problem with all of this is that so many of the subplots and elements are left unresolved, or they are worked out in blunt, unsatisfying ways. This includes, unfortunately, the central mystery itself. For example, towards the beginning of the novel, Ziya reflects on his childhood and how he killed a bird as a child. But this event, though reflected on in hushed tones by Ziya, doesn't have any meaningful impact on the plot or clear symbolic link to anything else.
There is something very profound about a simple story told well and, at its best, this book is that. The main idea of a man reflecting on his time doing military service works well but it is constantly distracted from for no payoff. It almost feels like it was intended to be more dreamlike and the writer chickened out at the last moment.
Of course, as with any translated fiction, there is always the chance that there are messages, themes and illusions that are significant to readers from the culture of its origin and are missed by non-native readers (in fact, I talked about this in my review of Kenzeburo Oe last edition). This is possible. It was certainly true when I read Tanpınar’s Huzur, which was a beautiful book that, although I loved it, I would be the first one to recognise that I didn't understand all of it. The things I didn't understand in Huzur were complex references to Turkish poetry, music and culture. However, the things that I found hard work in Reckless where purely structural.
All of this left me wondering why Toptaş has the reputation he has in Turkey and why this book looms large. The first reason, I suppose, is that despite the criticisms I make above I did actually enjoy the book; the characters are broadly sympathetic, sections about life in the village are, periodically, charming and the middle section in the army is legitimately interesting. I will certainly read more of his work.
I wonder whether this book is well thought of because it fits into a grander tradition of Turkish literature. Writers like Orhan Pamuk, Yashar Kemal and Bilge Karasu have long used non-linear story telling elements to great effect. I wonder if Reckless’s success is because it taps into that vein, even though it pricks the arm more often that not. I wonder if it does just enough to generate the feeling of mystery and depth to make up for its lack of narrative substance.
You can find Reckless here.