Looking at life through a different lens

Published 30.10.2010 11:22

İstanbul Advice often given to a foreigner new to Turkey often includes “Don't rush in to the heart of the matter” and “Don't try to get your business done in 10 minutes flat and then rush on to the next appointment.”

You need to drink a cup of tea first. You need to ask about how things are going. You need to find out what the other person is thinking. These simple pleasantries are more than just a formality that wastes time before we can get to the real business at hand; they are the real business. For in Turkey the relationship is more important than the task.

Developing, protecting and preserving a good relationship matter more than achieving a list of goals or reaching milestones in a project. How you think and feel about a period of your life relates more to the friends and relationships you had then, rather than the aims accomplished.

Success is measured in part by worldly advancement, but also by an advancement in making good relationships with more successful and more important people.

In Britain, obituaries focus on the main achievement of a person's life. In Turkey, the emphasis is more on their family, their educational background and their friends. The quality of the relationships defines the quality of the man -- rather than what they have done with their time.

Time is a commodity that can be spent. There will be more of it tomorrow, if God wills it. But people are precious and cannot be replaced. Understanding how they think, how they feel and their values is key to Turkish life.

Time is fascinating. It is the one thing whose quantity we cannot control: None of us can add more hours to the day. Nor can we add more days, or weeks, or years to our lifespan. Time "marches on." Time "flies."

We "don't have it," but we can "make it." We can have "all the time in the world" or we think we "can't spare" it. What to one person seems to be "wasting" time is to another "spending it" wisely.

Reading a collection of Turkish short stories published by Çitlembik this week, I was confronted by the different viewpoints of my British background and my Turkish assimilation. I enjoy the short story genre, perhaps because it is possible to squeeze the whole experience of reading a story into a few short minutes' reading snatched guilty out of a busy day. A novel requires hours spent -- hours that probably should be being devoted to meeting some pressing need, or doing something more constructive than curling up in a corner with a good book.

But no one, not even your guilty conscience programmed to use every minute to the full, can begrudge you 10 or 15 minutes with a short story.

Faced with 43 stories from some 30 writers, the difference between the traditional short story of English literature and that of these modern Turkish authors is inescapable. In a short story penned by Somerset Maugham, or Roald Dahl, or Maeve Binchy, the author uses a few pages and several thousand words to create a complete world of action. A scene is set, the characters move on it decidedly and purposefully, the conclusion is achieved and the story ends, with the reader able to reflect on what has happened and to come to a conclusion about a theme, an issue or an emotion.

For the majority of these Turkish authors, though, the story is less about what happens as about what was felt. A scene is set, the characters express their thoughts, their hopes, their feelings, which are brought together into one conclusion of emotion, leaving the reader face-to-face with the human heart.

In its introduction the collection says it has been "launched to better familiarize the English speaking world with contemporary Turkish fiction." Volume 1 focuses on writers of the 1960s to 1980s. Volume 2 brings us more up-to-date with writers of the last two decades. We come face-to-face with the innermost thoughts of both established authors and new faces.

I had always felt that the perspective of a Turkish story was different from those I grew up reading. Our English teachers always insisted that a story should have "a beginning, a middle and an end." Many Turkish novels seem to have none of the above, or, perhaps more accurately, to have a beginning, a middle and an end all in the wrong order. Perhaps the genius that has brought international success to authors such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak is that they move effortlessly backwards and forwards between a beginning, a middle and an end, and in doing so, challenge the English-speaking reader to look at life differently.

This collection, with so many short stories in close company, underlines the difference in Turkish literature. In many of the stories, nothing -- to the Western eye -- happens. But so much of the human heart and emotions is exposed. In order to maximize this effect, many of the authors use the first person voice. We are more used to the third person voice in Western literature, as our stories focus on what he or she did, rather than how they felt or what they thought.

"His arrival was like always. It was as ordinary as it was unusual. I could see," writes Feyza Hepçilingirler. She tackles the question of does love ever wear out by exploring the emotions of a woman when her husband comes home one evening. Her conclusion is: only if the heart has shriveled and slackened.

This strength of being able to focus on the heart and feelings enables Turkish authors to easily put themselves directly into the shoes of another. Karin Karakaşlı masterfully becomes a goddess from Zeugma: "I am a mosaic who has seen her day." Using her imagination she brings not the body of a past-age to life, but the soul to life.

But my favorite gem is Murathan Mungan's retelling of Snow White, where he focuses on the futility of always hoping that life will turn out like a fairy tale. He demonstrates in just three short pages how those who wait for the perfection of their dreams miss out on living life to the full, and the dangers of getting bitter when our dreams are not fulfilled.

Which brings us back to the question of what is living life to the full? Packing it full of deeds and actions, or full of relationships? This collection could challenge you to change your perspective. After all, isn't that what great literature is all about?

"Contemporary Turkish Short Fiction: A Selection," edited by Suat Karantay, published by Çitlembik (2010), TL 18 in paperback ISBN: 978-994442454- MARION JAMES - CIHAN

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