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Ilinca Bernea, an interview with Burhan Sönmez

08.05.2017
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By far, the best written book about torture that I have read is Burhan Sönmez' Istanbul Istanbul. It took me over 6 months to read it, because the atmosphere is so alive that you can't bear any more than a dozen pages at once. Or less! The grave lyricism that accompanies every step of the narration, the sensory density of the revelations and the existential depth that the prose writer drills at is stupefying. I suspect that the almost hypnotic fascination that the style produces is, in a great proportion, the merit of the translator Leila Unal. The aestheticism of the writing is breathtaking, I am tempted to say that this novel about torture emanates the most intense epiphany of beauty that I've experienced as a reader. Why did Burhan Sönmez choose to cultivate this paradox? For me, it remains a partly mysterious fact. He builds a Manicheist, radically-separated world, between the sublime and the abject, between purity and darkness, a world in which good and evil are absolute, according to fairytale-like canons. It is precisely why, as a modern reader, it is difficult to deal with, being used to anti-heroes, with characters the composition of which includes comparable doses of compassion and cruelty, of misery and candor. The literary constructions we are accustomed to are almost invariably comprised in the orbit of realist convention. The author's intention is to present the waters separately, to talk about the saint and the brute inside man, making them allegorically confront each other in the cellars of a secret prison in the catacombs of Istanbul. The book abounds in symbols and key scenes, in which the two forces that are fighting on the field of human consciousness appear personified in the roles of the tortured and the torturers. This subterranean world is the dark reverse of the world on the surface, it is the subconscious in which a sleeping monster is languishing. Just as in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, the fortress of Istanbul from Sonmez' vision is a being that grew shapeless and luxurious and which extends its tentacles in all dimensions and points of the horizon, creating more or less secret bridges, between the sky and the earth and the subterranean areas of existence, it is a mammoth-creature that melts in its breath the vapors of nostalgia and the putrid miasmas of criminal urges, the heavy scent of hopelessness and the breeze of love's meshes that throws red kerchiefs in the waters of the Bosporus. We are dealing with a cult fairytale, written in an existentialist spirit. In Sönmez' conception, influenced by Sartre's philosophy, the human is meant to secrete the inhuman.

"A tramway coming from nowhere and heading to nowhere" is the symbol of the individual destiny. The book abounds in such symbol-images, but also in unexpectedly accurate descriptions of spiritual vagueness states, of wrinkles of feeling that language usually cannot capture and record. Just like an ultrasensitive magnetic film, Sönmez' consciousness collects and reflects the inflections of the discrete tones of experience or the sometimes heartbreaking charm of border states, from the grey area in which "existence and inexistence interpenetrate".

There is a permanent play of contrasts between the exposed descriptions and stories; good and evil appear either as different sides of the same medal, or as the eyeholes of a hand-knitted fabric, or blended, like the blood that disturbs the water, but they become one, or like the painting with the mists of Istanbul that turn people into shadows.

The monologues of the five characters have somewhat the same caliber, they take place in the same range and have almost the same timber, which can seem like a literary blunder, because obviously, five different people, with different biographies and manners of being, cannot express themselves in the same way. But we are not situated in the convention of a realistic writing, but rather in the horizon of a long epic poem with disturbing lyrical convulsions. It is precisely the similarity between the five voices of the characters that throws us on the field of the narration
- which produces the separation between the first person, the second and the third, which draws borders between destinies, expectations, or distinguishes individuals according to age, needs, beliefs, gender, producing what the Buddhists might call "the illusion of separation" - in full abysmal lyricism, in which everyone's experiences flow into the collector of humankind's dreams, illusions and errors, it becomes an integral part of the consciousness of the big Ego. Sönmez' book doesn't have a dozen characters, as it might seem, but only one: the human being. I felt, in the sensitive articulations of the writing, the influence of Jung's philosophy to be more powerful than that of Sartre's existentialism, but they are both present in the background.

"By the time we get used to one, another takes its place. But people have their limit. We walk faster than turtles and we run slower than rabbits. Our minds and our feelings have their limit. We overcome traditions and are overcome by novelties. The discrepancy that burdens this balance destroys our inner balance. What is new cannot be the continuance of what is old, because there is no more oldness. Everything turns into waste. Continuity is forgotten. 'Becoming attached' loses its meaning. Just like garbage bins, our hearts fill with waste. This rhythm made my mother grow tired. She slept worriedly through the nights and lived on dreams throughout the day. What else could she do?"

I would call the tension emanated by the plays upon images and ideas: abysmal lyricism, because it is associated with the moment when the waters divide in the depths of the being, when you choose to stay in the light, confronting pain, or give in to it. The effort to stay in the light is a continuous one. The battle against the beast in the depths and especially against the terror it inspires you never ceases. Goodness, the Turkish author tells us, is not a sure thing, it is not a heavenly grace, but rather the fruit of a fierce inner battle.

What he is trying to grasp from the torments of torture and the mists of Bosporus is this territory of humanity, the avatars of which
- the saint and the brute - are clenched in a continuous battle.

This is the quote that ends the book
.
"Hell is not the place where we suffer
but the place where no one knows we are suffering
." Mansur Al-Hallaj


Ilinca Bernea: You are an engaged writer. Was this aspect of your literature determined by the social-political context you lived in?
Burhan Sönmez: I can't say "no" to this question. We are made of the place and time of we are born in. And we try to run away from it with the help of our dreams. Literature is on that junction.

I.B.: The issue of freedom or destiny, of individual identity, these are themes with a heavy philosophical heredity. You need a very strong inner spirit to be able to approach them with literary "naturalness". Is it necessary to have the experience of living in a social climate marked by drama and powerful contrasts in order to find the courage and means of writing about striking situations?
B.S.: Terry Eagleton once said if you are an Irishman and want to be a writer but you didn't have a troubled childhood then you don't have a chance. This is true but it is not a single base of literature. A writer is a man who can go beyond the realities and facts by his/her artistic power of imagination and perception.

I.B.: There is a certain inevitable moral tension between the practice of individual freedom and one's responsibility towards the community and its values, but it is not very legible in an extremely libertarian and individualistic social climate. It becomes clearer when you come across the problem of choosing between the love/duty towards your own self (speaking in Kantian terms) and the love/duty towards others. In a turbulent or oppressive social climate, the issue of caring for your close ones inevitably comes to the forefront, because you are not on your own anymore... You don't only expose your own being, but also that of your loved ones. The matter of courage seems fundamentally tied to the responsibility for the ones you might expose, by taking a risk. I imagine you have experienced such dilemmas.
Being a sensitive subject, I will ask the question timidly. How difficult is it to make the decision of becoming a dissident of a regime that might persecute your family? I grew up in communism, in the worst years of the Ceauşescu era, and back then, if someone dared to rebel, the first who suffered were the children, the husband or the wife. From this perspective, I am interested to know what it was like when you were arrested
.
B.S.: This is a question that has not a straight answer. Our loved ones (spouse, kids, parents, friends) are our power. But there are times that they become our weak points. The evil knows this well. I would not steal bread for myself but I would steal bread if my child got hungry. I met people who resisted the harshest means of torture for weeks and months, they refused to speak a word despite electric shock, hanging by arms and bastinado. But they got loosen when their little baby got tortured in front of their eyes. The evil possesses you by two means one is fear the other one is love. Because you love your family you feel fear for them. That's a point that oppressive regimes use very well.

Ilinca Bernea: There was a scene in Istanbul Istanbul, in the story of Kamo the barber, which showed that witnessing another man's torture is even harder to endure than your own suffering, because you feel responsible for the other person's torment. I've thought about this many times and I believe this is the most heinous, yet surest way of making someone betray. There have been social experiments conducted in this sense. These are heavy themes, which great literature touches on, but leaves suspended somehow. A subject that Orwell analyzed in detail as well. How far can you go to defend the truth? You can sacrifice your life for ideas, but not the lives of others.
"Cowardice", in conditions of tyranny and oppression, is a complex matter and not very easy to classify. Just as in Dante's Inferno, in the family I grew up in, the lowest scoundrels were considered to be snitches and spies. If you know that your child or your lover might be tortured, so that you will be forced to betray a cause, what is more moral? To save them or the truth and justice you were and are considered "dangerous" for?
B.S.: There was a similar question in the story of English Patient too. That kind of questions have their own answers for each case. In the end we try to understand their reasons rather than judging them. For example the Doctor's dilemma in Istanbul Istanbul is driving us into the same field. Doctor speaks of another possibility which is killing himself. If he kills himself, then he will not be forced to betray his son. These are the moments you hate life because it doesn't give you an option but desperation and pain.

I.B.: In what relation are you with the ideas of Michel Foucault from The Birth of Prison?
B.S.: I am with Foucault but I mostly followed the Baudrillard's idea of reality in relation with building cities and prisons. In the Chapter Three of Istanbul Istanbul Kamo the barber speaks with that knowledge. They build Disneyland out of the city and make us believe that the city itself is not a playground. They build a prison and make us believe that the city is not a prison. That's an illusion. The city itself is a prison and a playground.

I.B.: Your books show it clearly: the human condition is fundamentally marked by this tension of the choice between complementary values or values that cancel each other out, or between necessity and freedom. Do you believe in moral solutions in desperate circumstances?
B.S.: Moral solutions are valid for individuals not crowds. Which one do we prefer become, an individual or a piece in the crowd? Moral solutions are not to solve problems, they are special tests for us.

I.B.: You are a lawyer by trade. When did the desire to become a writer appear in your consciousness? Did you always want it or did it become inevitable to write, at some point in your life? How was this novelist identity formed?
If you were to describe yourself in a few super-personal identity attributes, what would they be?

B.S.: I have always been a person of literature. When I was a student at the secondary school I remember I won prizes for the best short-story writing and for poetry. I won two national awards for poetry when I was a university student. But, at the time, I never imagined that I would turn my hand to writing novels. It came to me when I got wounded and fell in the bed after being attacked by the police. I don't know how it came. I began to write novels.

I.B.: If you were to describe yourself in a few super-personal identity attributes, what would they be?
B.S.: Describing myself? I am a novelist, but my dream was to become a naive poet. We have dreams that broaden our imagination even though it is impossible to make it real.

I.B.: In what relation are you with illuminist philosophy?
B.S.: I liked the philosophers of Frankfurt School who wanted to go beyond illumination by criticizing its faults but I still love the mind of illuminist philosophers who had a great eye to see the human and the world as an entirety. It was before a time that is now seeing the world in fragments. The modern world is seen in fragments by an eye, which itself, in fact, is fractured.

I.B.: Who are the writers and thinkers that influenced you most?
B.S.: There are many of them. But the names change from time to time. Socrates, Dante, Averroes, Kant, Marx, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Marquez, Nazim Hikmet...

I.B.: The limits of human condition and the exploration of what the "human" domain might mean are major issues in philosophy, which you placed at the base of your novels. How do you conceive them? Do you have a corpus of ideas that the literary fiction embodies around or do you first figure out the epic background, and the philosophy results from the manner in which you relate to the narrated matters?
B.S.: I don't have a line of precedence when preparing and writing a novel. It comes as total. The theme, characters, issues and questions are all within each other. I find them one in the other.

I.B.: How much are the characters in Istanbul Istanbul inspired from reality?
B.S.: All characters are inspired from life but the literature tries to carry those characters beyond reality in order to create a new way of reality.

I.B.: What I find most impressive in your books is the abundance of images and metaphors, the lyricism infiltrated into each layer of the narration and the rhythm of the phrases. Poetry shows through, on the one hand from the romantic profile of the characters and of their inner universe, from the dramatic situations and the existentialist background of the writing, and on the other hand, from a certain specific savor of the atmosphere, which I feel as being genuinely Turkish. The ineffable and paradoxical element that blends hardness with tenderness and exaltation with melancholy. My curiosity is if you build your metaphors or they simply, naturally, organically accompany your manner of thinking and expressing things.
B.S.: Your words are good help to me for expressing my ideas. Here it is: I build metaphors by a natural feeling which organically accompany my manner of thinking and expressing things.

I.B.: Are you an elaborate writer? What are the stages of building a novel?
How interested are you in the esthetic dimension of expression? I personally feel your prose as being one of great esthetic refinement
.
B.S.: I like to write a page again and again until I feel satisfied. When I am working on a novel I work up to ten hours a day. If I manage to finish a page a day I call it a great day. Before starting a novel I have already got pages of notes ready about it. I have files with so many ideas for new novels and notes about them, about their themes and characters. When I pick one up to turn in to a whole novel the most difficult part is first sentence and the first page. It takes about one year to write the first page. I know what to write but I need the right words and rhythm to get to the real feeling of it.

I.B.: How important is style in the exigencies and expectations that you have from your own writing, but also from the writing of others?
B.S.: It is important because the style means the artistic way of expressing the world of your novel.

I.B.: A question in the style of Borges' literature. If I were to live for a while in Istanbul, in order to write a documentary-book about the past and present of this Labyrinth-City, where would you recommend that I begin? What makes Istanbul unique in the world? Each city has its secrets, an unmistakable manner of being, its own maladies. What is typical for Istanbul, beyond the overwhelming melancholy of the metropolis, which Pamuk also talked about?
B.S.: I think you could choose anywhere or anything in Istanbul to begin a book. It would eventually lead you to the past and future at the same time. I think that is the characteristic of Istanbul. You can find or feel an invisible gate, on every corner, that takes you to another dimension of the city.

I.B.: Permanently overseeing someone is a horrific abuse. The right to solitude and privacy, the right to secret are essential matters. Jeremy Bantham conceived Panopticon - a prison wherein everything was visible. Even though it would have been impossible for a single guardian to overlook all prisoners at the same time, the fact that he could assist anytime to anything happening in each cell induces to the detained person the feeling of being continuously watched. Being under continuous control or, in other words, living in a climate of absolute suspicion is a form of terror. Foucault talks about this in The Birth of The Prison.
The "truth at any price" and "being obligated not to sin" represent the driving force of the dictatorship. A saint, I use to say, is the one who militates for the right to sin. There is no foundation for morals and for any axiology in the absence of freedom.
How do you explain this paradox? People freely voting for a form of dictatorship?

B.S.: We have long time ago lost our freedom by creating social institutions like state, government, media, schooling, voting etc. We are trying to create little rooms of freedom in the vast metropolis of dictatorships. That's why freedom, most of time, cannot be gained with people but against them.

I.B.: It is unbearable living under continuous control, and unfortunately the technical means permit such intrusions into our intimacy, which is very serious. How do you think we could defend our "right to sin" under these circumstances?
B.S.: Right to sin and right to mistake can be fulfilled by committing it. Only way of talking about the taste of an apple is to bite it.

I.B.: I think that we should be able to scrutinize every human "truth" and knowledge. The main problem with the religious doctrines (of all kind) is that they are claimed not to be human "truth" and therefore they are considered unquestionable. How could a skeptical mind convince a believer that all human values and meanings have been drawn with human measures by human minds? that even the specific object of transcendental revelations was configured in a human subjective way?
B.S.: A god is in the heaven, if you believe it, but its words and practices are on the earth. So you are capable of seeing its words in reality: whether they are right or wrong. Only way to understand it is to check it with our intelligent. That's why we are still at the centre of a problem that pointed out by Kant long time ago. And we still have a long way to go.

I.B.: The main problem with the mystical thinking is, laughably, the "positivism" displayed by its adepts, don't you find?
B.S.: That's their paradox. They can not prove the divine without non-divine means.

I.B.: What will happen next in Turkey in what concerns the laicism?
B.S.: It is a journey started about two hundred years ago, had a sharp turn a hundred year ago and is now having a new clash at the moment with the aim of some to kill it or of some to bring it back to life. Religious politics have always been influential in Turkey and in last twenty years has got to its peak. In mid-term it will recede, I believe.

I.B.: A very good friend of mine, a Turkish woman, told me with a kind of resigned despair, the other days, that the Referendum on Sunday represents the end of the Republic. Is that true? Or are there still hopes of returning to a form of substantial democracy?
Do you believe that the freedom of expression and of circulation will be more and more severely affected?

B.S.: We have been living in a non-democratic country for decades especially since 1980 military cue-de-ta. Every decade had its own essence. Now this essence is Islamism which is damaging the countries last democratic values. I am still hopeful because at least the half of the society is strongly against the government. The government knows that and that's why they apply two major politics which are violence and lie. They are very good at telling lies to the public and using violence. They will be increasing it because the opposition in Turkey doesn't stop to refuse their policies.

I.B.: How has happened what we perceive, from abroad, as a schisma of values in the core of the Turkish culture and mentalities?
B.S.: It has been created by greedy and narrow-minded politicians. In democracies it is normal to see governments and opposition parties and groups. But here they have been forced to take position of enemies towards each other. Rather than being democratic opponents in the same society now they see each other as enemy that is a foreign element in the society. That's dangerous, if you want to have common and well-balanced future for the whole society. I know this political tendency is not unique to Turkey, unfortunately you can see it in many countries nowadays.

I.B.: Is there any possibility that non-religious persons to start being anathemized from now on like in theocracy?
B.S.: The way to anathematized them is to give them new labels like: gay, immoral, terrorist, sinful etc. It is already an actual fact today.

I.B.: You have been in the army. I know in Turkey the military service in mandatory. How tough was it? And what do you think about the fact of being mandatory?
B.S.: Military service is mandatory in Turkey. So many people are against it. I was taken to the military service by force. But then in the army they labelled me as "refused" which means you are dangerous for the country. They don't give you any arm, they supervise you continuously. I hope the generations of the future will manage to get rid of all armies.

Versiunea în română a acestui interviu poate fi citită aici.
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