Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Bilge Karasu, The Garden of Departed Cats (1979)

Turkish literature: it's more of a thing than I was aware of. I think it's for a variety of reasons that I wasn't more aware of it: Turkey is at least partially a European country, but it feels kind of separate. The people speak a non-Indo-European language that few outsiders learn because--unlike, say, Japan--the country doesn't have much economic impact in the larger world and its pop culture hasn't caught on internationally. And, really, who KNOWS anything about it? I mean, aside from the fact that if you've a date in Constantinople she'll be waiting in Istanbul? If anything, you'd probably associate it more with epic poetry than you would modern and contemporary novels, and if it sounds like I'm trying to dance around sounding vaguely racist, yeah, fair cop, though for whatever it's worth, I've had a number of Turkish students who described their country as being on the border between "traditional" and "modern" cultures, or words to that effect.

But anyway, a thing it is, and definitely worth looking into. The author people know about is Orhan Pamuk, 'cause of the Nobel Prize, but there are quite a lot of other interesting-looking Turkish novelists, and a surprising number have been translated into English, even. I mean, obviously not that many as a percentage of the whole, but enough to keep one busy for awhile.

Anyway, I read this. A number of Karasu's books have been translated, but this one looked the most interesting. And damn, it's nothing if not that. It's one of those books that you basically only call a novel for lack of a better word; perhaps a better comparison would be something like The Thousand and One Nights. The connective tissue concerns a traveler who becomes involved in an archaic game of human something-like-chess that's played every ten years, and his intense attraction to the captain of the opposing team. This story is presented in short interstitial chapters; the rest of the book is composed of a series of stories--fables, you could call them, or faerie tales--that have no obvious connection to that larger narrative. They weren't specifically written for this book; each one is dated at the end, from various times in the sixties and seventies (let it be noted that although the New Directions translation is very insistent that the original Turkish text was published in 1991, the entire rest of the internet thinks 79 or 80, and those years seem much more sensical).

Not sure how well this whole thing stands together as a narrative, but my gosh, WHAT STORIES THESE ARE. The description of them as fables or faerie tales might make them sound premodern, but I found them, in general, strongly reminiscent of Calvino, with some Borges thrown in to boot. They vary wildly in subject matter. Some of my favorites were "The Man Who Misses His Ride, Night After Night," about a guy obsessed with the idea of going to a particular city but against whom events keep conspiring; "In Praise of the Fearless Porcupine," in which the narrator several times sees a porcupine wandering around in Ankara, an unusual sight, and imagines the porcupine's probable narration of its own travails; and "Hurt Me Not," where a strange island country starts inexplicably to expand, leading the inhabitants to react in extreme ways. According to the back cover, as well as to the kind of meta-tale that finishes the book, the overriding theme is meant to be "the nature of love," but I have my doubts: sure, you can see how that works in some of the stories, although often you have to think very broadly about the subject, but how about "The Man Walking in the Tunnel," in which the narrator enters a tunnel that seems much larger than it should be, given the geography of the area, and keeps walking endlessly, running into convenient vending machines when he needs food? Or "Our Sea," where two men transform into primordial sea creatures? I'm not criticizing these stories, they're great, I'm just saying: hmmm.

So I'm not sure if you want to call this a novel, but if so it's the first Turkish novel I've read, and I'm really, really impressed. I shall read more, though not quite this instant.


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