Ottomania

Tom HOLLAND

Straddling Asia and Europe, Turkey has always been shaped by the ambivalence of its geographical position. Tariq Ali's novel The Stone Woman portrays a society paralysed by the need to choose between East and West. It is 1899, and the Ottoman Empire is rotting away. In a summer palace outside Istanbul, the family and friends of the great nobleman Iskander Pasha gather to debate the Empire's crises. And debate, it has to be said, is pretty much all anybody does: "I only read Machiavelli because Hegel wrote of him with such respect in his celebrated 1802 text 'On the German Constitution'." And so the conversation goes on and on.

This despite the seeming drama in which the family is caught up. Ali's narrator, the Pasha's daughter Nilofer, commits adultery, then learns that her husband has been conveniently killed by a lynch mob just in time for her to marry again, yet neither of these events really disturbs the stately tedium of her menfolk's interminable political discussions.

Indeed, there is very little to suggest that Nilofer is a woman of the late Ottoman Empire at all. It is a mystery why Ali chose her to narrate a story which is mainly concerned with everything that Turkish men of the period would have kept strictly to themselves and why having made his decision, he did not then attempt to make Nilofer more compelling as a female figure breaking through into a patriarchal world.

The result is that the setting of Ali's novel becomes little more than an excuse to exoticise what is otherwise, a sequence of rehashed lectures notes. Since it is his stated aim to pose a challenge "to stereotyped images of life under Islam", this is unfortunate to say the least. It is as though Ali was too afraid of the emotions which the structures of Ottoman life must have engendered to explore them fully. His stern attempts to avoid the stereotypes of Western writers on the Ottomans have resulted in a novel which is just as condescending and even worse, dull.

Readers who need convincing that the vicissitudes of Turkish history can be blended with a gripping and poignant family memorial should instead read Erendiz Atasü's The Other Side of the Mountain. This was a prize-winning novel in Turkey, and judging by this translation, it deserved to garner everything that was going. Chronicling the lives of three generations of women, from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to the present day, it is a beautifully sophisticated narrative, at once epic and intimate. At its heart lies the story of the narrator's mother, who was sent on a scholarship by the new Turkish republic to Cambridge University and returns with influences and memories that will through her live.

Chief amongst these influences is Virginia Woolf, who has also influence Atasü herself. She is unafraid to experiment freely with narrative and style, and this explains her extraordinary range, for she is able to move at will from the documentary to the personal, and back and forwards through time. And yet the narrative never once becomes confusing, and one finishes it with the feeling of having glimpsed a country's soul. A novel so profoundly Turkish, and yet also so creatively aware of European literary models, suggests that maybe East and West don't have to be chosen between after all.

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