Irzik Traces Memory and Protest in Turkish Novels

By Phyllis Jeffrey – Literature can bear witness to political trauma. But what happens when that trauma exceeds narrative possibilities? On November 30, 2016, in a talk entitled "Mourning, Memory, and Articulations of the Political in Turkish Coup d'état Novels," Sibel Irzık explored the 'coup novels' that have become a prominent sub-genre in Turkish literature since 1980.

According to Irzık (a professor of comparative literature at Sabancı University in Istanbul), coups such as occurred in Turkey in 1980 go beyond the crushing of particular political oppositions to effect “the death of the political.” In this setting, writing can no longer gesture directly to deliberately political memories or alternatives. So what can it do? Turkish writers’ approach to this dilemma was Irzık’s central problematic—“how literature reflects, mourns, perhaps attempts to counteract this loss.” 

Turkey’s 1980 coup d’état saw more than 120,000 people imprisoned. As a junta-written constitution placed bans on oppositional organizing, and a new agreement with the IMF began opening the nation’s economy to the outside, new consumer publics were created, while workers and the poor were consigned to increasingly unstable forms of existence.

Yet reforms to some individual freedoms over the course of the ensuing decade, coupled with increased exposure of the Turkish literary scene to global trends, meant that Turkish writers were able to develop new, experimental literary forms through which they could indirectly explore the trauma of 1980. 

Ambivalence and literary freedom 

In a scene that Irzık highlighted from the novel Snow, by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, protagonist Ka finds himself, following a coup d’état launched in the forlorn eastern border town of Kars, taken to police headquarters to identify a suspect in a murder he has witnessed. When, inside a makeshift morgue, Ka recognizes the body of a religious high school boy with whom he had become friendly, Ka’s reaction, Irzik noted, is ambivalent.

The sight of the boy’s corpse does not prevent Ka from registering a “wave of gratitude” for being alive. Soon, his thoughts turn to the woman with whom he is infatuated. The scene ends with Ka overcome by an urge to write a poem entitled ‘Dream Streets.’ In another scene, Ka likens the peacefulness he feels in the empty streets of Kars to childhood memories of familial togetherness during the days of post-1980 enforced curfews.

Treating these scenes from Snow as emblematic of broader questions raised by the post-1980 coup novel genre, Irzık noted that Ka, Pamuk’s protagonist, is a writer—one separated by both time and an intervening exile in Germany from 1980—now confronted by state violence. What, she asked, is Ka the poet doing in the “cold rooms of terror”—not in the role of prisoner, as in so many 1970s novels—but as a kind of ambivalent witness? How are we to understand Ka’s guilt and fear, his gratitude, and feebleness? Why does he go out of the torture chambers to write a poem about dream streets, and what are we to make of the fact that this poem (like all his others) is doomed to remain unheard in this coup novel?

Playing out the tragedy of defeat

Focusing on these questions, Irzik suggested, is key to understanding the coup novel genre as being inherently shaped by the 1980 coup. In novels like Snow, the conflicts, as well as writers’ own feelings of guilt—conditioned by an inability to tell, as well as by their own experience of literary freedom and the “narcissistic pleasure” it brings—are “staged” through literary devices that allow the novel to comment on (or mock) its own literariness.

Thus, Irzık observed, in Snow (set not in the 1980s but the 1990s), memories of past coups and past revolutionary politics are presented only in the form of imperfectly-accessed memory. Ka is a poet exiled to Germany for political reasons, yet he “had never been very much involved in politics.” Snow allows tensions and gaps in Ka’s memory of the past to play out on its pages, while the plot of a secularist intervention against Islamism only indirectly frames memories of past coups.

For Irzık, post-1980 novels like Snow are able to address such memories in indirect, abstracted, and internally-conflicted ways precisely because of the “fracture” effected by the 1980 coup. However, post-1980 literature deals with that “fracture” by using the textual format to thematize and play out the very tragedy of defeat, not only of their protagonists’ political movements, but of the very language that could intelligibly capture their revolutionary ideals.

Intentional incoherence 

Bilge Karasu’s Night (1985)—set in a dystopia in which the encroachment of authoritarianism takes the form of a descending night—begins, with a clear narrative structure, in a world in which language and writing are stated to be “the only means of resistance.” However, as the protagonist—a solitary figure living on a hill—attempts to intervene directly in political events, the plot and narrative structure of the novel begin to collapse. Multiple narrators emerge, while the protagonist becomes increasingly entangled with the figure of the political dictator, against whom he must struggle for narrative authority over the text. According to Irzık, this intentional incoherence represents a staging of the failure of narrative itself.

Post-1980 coup novels also dramatically express the losses of post-1980 in inventive ways. Thus in Şahbaz’s Wonderful Year of 1979 (2007), the narrator, a perverse incarnation of the famed Scheherazade, rescues a woman who has been tortured by the state. By feeding her fruit and stories, the narrator manages to keep her alive through the year before the coup. Yet the contrast between her victimized body and her absence from a 1979 almanac (appended to the novel and giving an official account of that year’s events) highlights the widespread ignoring of coup victims. It is also unclear whether Şahbaz’s goal is to preserve the woman’s life or his own ability to tell stories. In Irzık’s account, such texts “stage with ambivalence their own efforts to remember history and politics.”

Power of postmemory

Today, Turkey once more faces political unrest. What of the future of Turkish novels of political trauma? Here, Irzık notes some interesting developments, in the form of two more recent novels by younger writers: Tol (meaning “revenge,” in Kurdish), by Mehmet Uyurkulak (2002), and Hah (“That’s it!”) by Birgül Oğuz (2012).

Both novels, Irzık noted, hint at a return to the distinctly political possibility of collective agency. Both feature young protagonists of the post-1980 “politically orphaned generation,” envisioning recapturing political agency through allowing oneself to be “haunted” by the past. Here, Irzık referenced Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory”—memory of events not directly experienced, but powerful or traumatic enough to be indirectly “absorbed” from parents or elders—in proposing that defeats experienced by past generations may be re-processed by their children “to encompass the actual revolutionary goals of prior generations.”

Tol’s protagonist Yusuf is a Kurdish man in his 30s, whose earliest memory is that of his mother saying, “they fucked us; they will fuck our children too.” Yusuf finds himself in a train car next to a friend of his father’s, a poet of the 1968 generation. Yusuf edits what the poet writes, compiling his output into the text of the novel. Meanwhile, a revolutionary action is occurring around them, with bombs targeting the state as well as large capitalist enterprises. Realizing that this is the work of yet another “returning child,” Yusuf thinks to himself, “how beautiful the revolution is, when it is a possibility.”

Meanwhile, in Hah, the narrative is again of memory. In one scene described by Irzık, an earlier scene of an interrupted May 1 demonstration is revisited. But now, suddenly, those who died in earlier coups begin to make themselves heard: these interrupted revolutionaries “march up from the stomach to the gullet to the mouth” of those who’ve inherited their memories. Once there, they salute each other, “sticking their heads out of other mouths, saying “what’s up, isn’t it a beautiful morning?’ In this way, the haunting is dynamic: it is a call to re-enact politics.

Learn more about Sibel Irzık at her Sabancı University faculty webpage.

This event was co-hosted by the Department of Comparative Literature and the Middle East/South Asia Studies Program.