The Other Side of the Mountain by Erendiz Atasü translated by Erendiz Atasü and Elizabeth Maslen Milet Publishing, 283 pp., f 7.99
"Could your homeland betray you like this, like a faithless lover?" asks the sorrowful narrator of The Other Side of the Mountain, Turkish writer Erendiz Atasü's meditative portrayal of her country in the 20th century. A powerful novel about three generations of a Turkish family, this book is also Atasü's lamentation for a country that has suffered from wars and social upheavals and has not fulfilled the ideals of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Based in part on her own family history, the novel is Atasü's attempt to "reach my country's flesh through the torturous passage of my own history."
The story is told by a 1990s narrator who is confronting the recent death of her mother, Vicdan, while also trying to figure out her own place in society. Although the novel tells the story of three generations of the family, its central characters are Vicdan and others of her generation, whose lifetimes spanned from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the late 20th century. Vicdan is one of the first students sent abroad (to Cambridge) by the young Republic of Turkey in the 1930s; after returning to Turkey, she becomes an English teacher and marries Raik, a math teacher. Vicdan's three younger brothers all pursue military careers, and all see armed combat in different locations in Turkey and abroad.
Through these characters, Atasü shows the tremendous disorder and suffering of the early 20th century, caused by the Balkan Wars, the First World War, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and the Turkish War of Independence. These characters witness the founding of the Turkish Republic and are considered the "Kemalist" generation because they share in "the euphoric visions of the Republic's early years." But their hope and idealism soon give way to disappointment and a feeling of betrayal, as the Turkish Republic heads down a path that some of them feel is unfaithful to Kemalist ideals: to win America's favor, Turkey sends troops to fight in the Korean War (among diem one of Vicdan's brothers); the beloved poet Nazim Hikmet is thrown into prison for being a communist; and regionalism and personal wealth become more important than the national good. Relations between some of the siblings become strained as they react to these changes, and as if this were not painful enough, in the last years of their lives, these characters again experience instability and terror, as the Turkish Republic plays out a "bloodstained comedy" of coups and political violence in the 1970s and 1980s.
Atasü uses the circumstances of the Kemalist generation to voice her complicated feelings towards contemporary Turkey, but Turkey is not the only subject of the book. In describing the wars and social changes, the false optimism of ideologies, and the disappointments of reality in Turkey in the 20th century, Atasü is more broadly chronicling the troubled experience of the entire world during that century, and the book becomes an elegy for the 20th century. In the end, the narrator wonders if anything has really changed for the better, and yet she expresses hope for the future.
Told in a poetic style which might not be expected to come from someone who was once a professor of pharmacognosy (at Ankara University), the novel does not proceed chronologically but episodically and through flashbacks, weaving together the paths of different characters across time and space, taking the reader on a journey that includes modern-day Turkey, Cambridge in the 1930s, Korea during the Korean War, the end of the Ottoman era, and many other times and places in-between. Though it helps to know some Turkish history, such knowledge is not necessary to appreciate Atasü's novel, as many of the narrative's historical events are international, such as the First and Second World Wars. Similarly, while readers who are familiar with Turkey will have the advantage of catching certain references not apparent to the typical non-Turkish reader, there are also numerous references to Western personalities, such as Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare and Nat King Cole. The Other Side of The Mountain is Atasu's first book translated into English. Anyone looking for a compellingly intimate narrative about Turkey in the last century could do no better.
Vanessa Larson is an editor and free-lance writer who lived in Istanbul during a recent State Department internship.