Sunday, January 14, 2007

Paradise Island

....or is it? Yasar Kemal's book 'Die Ameiseninsel' (not yet translated into English; the Turkish title translates as 'Look, the Firat River is flowing with blood') is set on an island off the Turkish coast which was inhabited by Greeks. As part of a Greek/Turkish exchange some time after the first World War, the Greeks who lived there for 3000 years are evicted from their island, to be returned to Greece, with similarly Turks being evicted from Greece to Turkey. While the island is empty, a mysterious stranger calling himself Musa the North Wind obtains the title deeds to one of the properties there and settles on the island. He does not know that one of the Greeks, Vasili, hid when they were transported away, and is still living on the island, with a vow to kill the first person who comes to the island... Not only that, but Vasili participated in the Battle of Gallipoli (on whose side?) and thinks he recognizes in Musa an army colonel who committed terrible atrocities.

Yasar Kemal (born in 1922) is one of the most well-known Turkish authors. He grew up in Van (formerly in Armenia) and some of his books are set in that remote part of Eastern Turkey. I have read a few of his books, and remember particularly one about 'Mehmet the Hawk' (one of his classics), and 'The Wind from the Plain'. (I also read 'Salman the Solitary' but can remember nothing about it....and am not at home to check it.) Kemal is a committed socialist. The books that I have read are generally set among the downtrodden of his society, always in rural society where the next meal is not guaranteed, and it seems mostly in the earlier part of the 20th century. The Intelligentsia definitely does not get a look-in.

This book seems a little different from the rather grim books set in the far east of Turkey; is it because it is set on a rather lush island in the Mediterranean (I think it's in the Med..., references to actual places are thin). The other two books gave an impression of dust, sand and starvation; this island, whose landscape is described at great length and in stunning detail, seems to have everything that a person could desire - and even the sea surrounding it is heaving with fish (wait till the common fisheries policy gets there!). His loving description of the very slow growth and development of olive trees gives them a soul which causes them to tremble with joy when they see a person approaching. Joy, as well as anger, features prominently in this book - 'Did they, in their whole lives, ever stroke a blue flower growing in a corner with their glances, because they dared not touch it, and then they would tremble with joy' (Much trembling with joy going on in this book, and indeed much simple joy).

Since Vasili suffers from flashbacks of the wars he was in, there are also many very vivid descriptions of the awfulness of the battle of Gallipoli where thousands of soldiers died appalling deaths in the snow and mud. All characters in this book were involved in the war and other atrocities, and some behaved really quite appallingly, whereas others suffered grievous losses. Musa, apart from being a war participant, then with some other renegade soldiers pillaged, looted and murdered many of the Yezedi population in (vaguely) the Iraq area, wherever they could be found, and then the Bedouins.... This is interesting, because some Yezedis now live in Armenia (as do some Kurds). They are rumoured to worship the Devil (this may be a misunderstanding since their word for the highest angel sounds like the Qu'ran's word for 'Satan'), and have been persecuted for centuries.

I was rather surprised that almost at the start of the book a Georgian name appeared. But much reference is also made to Chechen 'Khans' - the Chechens are described as the 'eagles of the Caucasus' - , Cherkassyans and other groups from countries from which the Turks were driven by the Czars. Obviously the Turkish empire extended very far and wide - as seen by the Turkic languages of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. One of the characters in the book is called AbdΓΌlvahap - not unlike my Kyrgyz colleague Abduvap...

Also at the beginning of the book the word 'Serail' (Seraglio) pops up a lot, where a land registration official in the nearby town is found to be someone who also comes from the Caucasus region, where he owned many seraglios. Interestingly (again!) a seraglio is what we understand as 'harem', a place for wives and concubines - and of course we have our musical link with that Mozart opera. These seraglios were staffed, according to Wikipedia, by eunuchs who were either captured in war (eg Christian Europeans), or recruited from the Turkish empire, particularly from Georgia and Armenia. Is this part of the world closely interlinked or what?

The book is extremely readable; it has plenty of drama, tension and excitement, and at the same time has these wonderfully indulgent descriptions of the luxuriant nature of this island. Kemal is extremely effective in using extremes of contrast between the peaceful, lush, beautiful island and the blood, mud and snow of the war scenes. While written in 1998, and set in perhaps the 1920s, it aptly describes the contradictions of life in that part of the world, and the turbulent and very troubled history affecting all its peoples. Interestingly, both Orhan Pamuk's and Kemal's books are very big on descriptions, but Kemal's writing is much less convoluted, and the story line goes somewhere.

And this was the final book of the 5 books to be read before the end of January - I am very glad I picked it up.