A Wretched Heaviness, Metin Kaçan: The Case for Translation
By Yağmur Coşkun
(…) exposed to temptations to commit murder every day (…) the native comes to see his neighbor as a relentless enemy. If he strikes his bare foot against a big stone in the middle of the path, it is a native who has placed it there; and the few olives that he was going to pick, X--'s children have gone and eaten in the night. For during the colonial period in Algeria and elsewhere many things may be done for a couple of pounds of semolina. Several people may be killed over it.
Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
In the last decade, a worldwide interest in Istanbul and its literature has been on the rise. This interest, it seems to me, has developed in two different moods, each of which has roots in two distinctive events in recent Turkish history: Orhan Pamuk winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 and the occupation of Gezi Park as a demonstration against state terrorism and neoliberal sack of nature in 2013. The former event has triggered a more orientalist and – somewhat – “touristy” attraction to the city, while the latter has been, and is, a discussion topic among the academicians, the left-wing activists of all sorts, the environmentalists, and literate circles. Although these two views of the city are fundamentally different from each other in their cultural and political matter, they do contain a socio-geographical overlap: Both focus their attention on the center (however they may differ in what they consider the “center” to be), and often ignore the periphery, which has historically been ever more fundamental to the city’s economic circulation since the 1960s.
This is precisely why I wanted to write about Metin Kaçan’s Ağır Roman, which speaks straight to and from the heart of Istanbul’s periphery. There have been numerous translations of Orhan Pamuk’s exotic novels, and photos and videos of the Gezi Resistance have been circulating all around the world, inspiring protestors in distant countries like Brazil or Argentina. Yet, Kaçan’s novel still awaits the interest it deserves, so that it may finally appear in different languages. This lack of interest is understandable, yet unacceptable: its world may not be glamorous as the exotic, mysterious, complex – yet completely fabricated – world of My Name is Red, but for at least half a century, it is the dynamo of the city that allows Pamuk to write his novels. Hence, for a fuller perception of Istanbul, it is necessary to look at this world, to read and translate this novel. Unlike some five-hundred-year old buildings of Ottoman aristocracy that may seem exotic to Western eyes or the heroic protestors of Gezi Park with their swimming glasses and hilarious slogans, the Fanonesque world of the peripheral neighborhoods of Istanbul (or, say, Sao Paulo or Beijing) often lack the means to speak for themselves. “They can’t represent themselves, they must be represented (Marx: 1852)”. This can be accomplished in two ways: either by the “talk of crime” (Caldera: 2000), i.e. by becoming a derogated, abused piece of chewing gum in the riches’ mouths, or by having a good observer speaking for and about them in a realistic way. And this latter Kaçan does in a brilliant way.
There have been examples of such a representation of the peripheries in the discourse of Turkish literature, like Orhan Kemal’s Evlerden Biri. However, Ağır Roman differs from most of these attempts in one important aspect: It goes one step beyond representing the periphery (or, in Turkish, kenar mahalle), it often lets it speak for itself, or at least speaks in its language. This I mean in a quite literal sense. The language the narrator uses is a mixture of poetic imagery, the local vocabulary of the periphery, and only occasionally a descriptive, all-knowing tone. Hence, the narrator melts his voice among the scenes he describes, and surrounds the fictitious street of Cholera, leaving it very seldom, and only to trace a character or two when he does so. In a way, the narrator becomes Cholera Street itself.
Even the name of the novel reflects this attitude. Ağır Roman literally means “the Heavy Novel”, but it is also a pun referring to a certain, elegy-like musical genre of the Roma, which is ever present throughout the novel as a dramatic leitmotiv. Like most of the phrases used throughout the novel, such as “manita”, “lavuk”, “zarbo” etc., the title cannot be translated directly, but can only be adapted.
The world of Cholera Street is cruel. Even in the first few pages, one can observe strict gender segregation, prostitution, ethnic discrimination (kara şopar = the black gipsy), and so forth. (Class issues are both never openly present and omnipresent, since the entire population of the neighborhood consists of poor people. Class lines become glaring through occasions of bullying and prostitution.) The rest of the novel is no less cruel: it is full of murders that stem seemingly out of nothing, honorable (of course, in Cholera Street standards) people literally losing their minds, betrayals, sacking of shops, false pieties, and so forth. Yet, all these events have significant meanings within the context of this isolated world. Indeed, the isolation of Cholera Street, which is a characteristic of almost all urban peripheries, is desperately felt throughout the novel. All social issues of the era in which the plot is set, the 1970s, are lurking behind the plot, but are addressed only via individual events such as a barber getting upset with the introduction of Gillette, or blackouts due to the war in Cyprus. The bigotry hidden in this situation becomes immediately glaring when we consider the vitality of the characters for the city’s social and economic life: a mechanic, a barber, several prostitutes, drivers, drug dealers, etc.This wall of hypocrisy ignorance surrounding the street makes everything even more cruel: the people of Cholera Street are left alone with their own problems of poverty, sexual desires, harassments, ignorance, false pieties, religious discriminations, and so forth. The only way out of this whirlpool means a radical break from one’s past, which is not endurable for everyone, as the reader can see while watching Berber Ali’s family falling apart.
However, what makes such a violent human landscape even more stunning, and the heavy novel even heavier, is the way the narrator describes these tough events. Almost all these events, that might have been told in a dramatic – even kitschy – way in a different context, are narrated completely without aura, without any dramatic tension, and without any tears, maybe as mundane everyday trifles. Yet, this cold distance, this lack of aura itself constitutes the street’s own aura, or the intangible charisma to which both the reader and the characters are attracted.
But why? Why do we tend to get attracted to such brutal, often disgusting river of events, lives and people? It cannot be explained by Girard’s thesis of the human being’s tendency to enjoy violence, since we cannot help but feel sorry even for those characters that themselves commit violent acts and of whose tragic ends the narrator speaks so coldly.
This question the novel does not answer. Yet, what it does is enough to explain our seemingly irrational sympathy. By reading the novel, we finally hear the periphery speaking, and we finally are shown the inner dynamics of the life in that distant world. Finally, we start to understand the violence, which is normally no more than an “epistemic murk” (Taussig: 1987) to us “civilized” audience. What we discover, however, is maybe even more terrorizing than the events narrated in the novel: the fact that the whirlpool of the periphery is only a version of the whirlpool of our own daily lives, and that what we suffer from is not so far away from what Cholera suffers from. Finally, the walls surrounding the periphery crumbles, and the “world cut into two”, of which “the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations” (Fanon: 1961) is fusing into one – only if we allow ourselves to listen.
Ağır Roman is a heavy novel. Yet, its therapeutic effect stems directly out of its heaviness, its violence. Unfortunately, it still waits to be translated so that it may reach out, demonstrate, and heal. So let us read it, translate it, and carry its heaviness as our own.
Caldeira, Teresa P. R. City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 2000.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, New York 2011.
Kaçan, Metin. Ağır Roman. Metis Yayinlari, Istanbul 1990.
Marx, Karl. Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte in Gesammelte Werke, Anaconda Verlag, Koeln 2016.
Taussig, Michael. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: a Study in Terror and Healing. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1987.