Ahmet Altan the journalist and Ahmet Altan the novelist face off in allegory of Turkey

In his novel Endgame, Altan creates a town that turns from paradise into the scene of a catastrophe as the setting for his story. Through this allegory, Altan makes an allusion to the Turkish Republic, to which he also directs some very sharp criticism

08 Aralık 2016 17:00

Endgame (Son Oyun) claims to be a murder mystery. However, if we take a closer look, we can see it’s actually not. The author Ahmet Altan has created this book in the form of an internal conflict and placed this narrative at the heart of an allegory of Turkey. When we analyze the symbols and the symbolic characters Altan has created in this novel, what we end up with is the story of a “writer” who’s had to choose between journalism and writing. Altan considers his very own story of quitting his journalism career a “murder.” But by the end of this piece of writing, we’ll understand clearly that the murder at the end of Altan’s novel is only an allusion. In Endgame, there is neither a victim nor a murderer.

Altan doesn't stop at that. As the setting for his story, he creates a small town that gradually turns from paradise into a disaster scene. With this allegory, Altan makes an allusion to the Turkish Republic, to which he also directs some very sharp criticism.

I read Endgame right after it got published, and had immediately come to the conclusions that I will be discussing in this article, but I didn't feel any urgency to write about the book back then. When recently Altan got arrested, it became absolutely necessary to write about the book. At the end of the novel, Altan tells of a novelist surrounded by the sound of sirens. And just like many others, this particular prediction by Altan was also becoming real. Endgame is one of those rare novels where fiction and real life perfectly overlap. It is Ahmet Altan’s end-game -- Altan being the relentless dissident. And it calls for some deliberation.

But is it really the right time to talk about an aspect of Altan’s book that’s managed to somewhat remain in the shadows up until now, i.e. the allegory at the heart of the book, at a time when national politics lacks this much tolerance and the government is this much merciless? The novel includes numerous expressions that are open to misinterpretation and they could easily cause Altan more trouble. Although it would be a compliment to our current authorities to expect from them such conclusions, their creative talent in spotting “elements of crime” is still intimidating. These thoughts have been pushing back the writing of this article. Whereas now, I’m rushing for a writer who, starting with the first moments of his being taken under custody, has been saying out loud even more striking things than what he implies in this novel and continues to do so despite the toll this could take on him.

Endgame, Ahmet Altan, Translated by: Alexander Dawe, Canongate BooksEndgame was originally published in Turkish in 2013. That was eight years after Altan’s previous novel, En Uzun Gece (The Longest Night). This marked the longest hiatus between two books in Altan’s career as a novelist. It’s not hard to imagine that the six years or so he spent with the Taraf daily was the main cause for this lengthy break. As it is, Altan explained while resigning from Taraf back in 2012 that he was returning to his “original profession, the novel.” A year later, he came up with Endgame. For us, the readers, what was interesting at that point was the fact that the protagonist in Endgame was a novelist who hasn't been able to write a book in quite a long while, just like Altan himself. And yes, this similarity between Altan and his protagonist must serve as a warning sign for some readers.

It might be good at this point to take a brief look at the story: The protagonist is a mysterious man. He is a novelist who hasn't written anything in a while. At the beginning of the book, this much is all we know, hence the reader can easily associate the character with Ahmet Altan. The novelist settles in a small town and decides to work on the “murder mystery” he had been planning on writing for quite some time. Not long after his arrival, the novelist embarks on secret affairs with the wives of the two most powerful and dangerous men in town. In the meantime, these two men begin battling each other for political power. By the end of the novel, their fight has turned into a war, leaving the entire town in shambles. And the novelist, in order to save the life of the woman he truly loves, shoots and kills the other woman -- or does he? (We’ll be looking at that later.)

I imagine even Ahmet Altan himself would agree that in this novel we have all the elements of a “bestseller,” with all its simplicity and clichés. But Altan doesn't stop at that; he assigns symbolic traits to the characters in the story, and even produces symbols out of certain words by taking them out of their original contexts (i.e. “murder,” “making love”). Eventually, if we take a careful look, we can see that what we have here is not just a bestseller, but a modern text with multiple layers.

Endgame’s premise is actually a pretty simple one: there are two female characters in the book. When you consider one of them as the representation of “journalism” and the other of “writing,” and think of the small town as a scale model of Turkey, you have it mostly figured out. But figuring it out is easier than actually doing it. So now let’s take a look at how Altan has done it. To begin with, we’ll take the two women the writer is having affairs with, Zuhal and Kamile Hanım, as symbols. We will then take a closer look at the supposed murder of Kamile. Thus the parts of the novel that intersect with Altan’s life will become clear. We’ll be looking at the allegory of Turkey, which we will be limiting to symbols such as “the town,” “the mayor” and “the treasure,” in the final part.

Zuhal: In Endgame, the protagonist is having separate affairs with two women at the same time. Among the two, Zuhal is the one that is young and pretty, the one the novelist is in love with. Firstly, Altan deserves praise for his choice in naming this character, for “Zuhal” is the Arabic word for the celestial object known as Saturn, which, because of its rings, is the most interesting planet in the entire Solar System. Saturn is believed to be formed entirely of gas, which means, it doesn't have a solid mass, and thus cannot provide a firm ground one can set foot on. When we closely inspect the character Altan has created, we see how truly suitable this name is for her. Her character is not one that’s easy to make sense of. She’s full of uncertainties. And neither of the men in his life (one of them being the novelist) can make sense of her and her wishes. But Altan doesn't let us choose the easy way out of this puzzle, which would be to simply label the character as “an unstable woman who doesn't know what she wants.” Altan makes us sense that Zuhal might be a symbol. Let’s now take a look at the following excerpts from the book, taken from the chapter where the novelist sees Zuhal for the first time. The definitions in this chapter make us think that we’re face to face with a metaphor rather than an actual woman made of flesh and blood.

“I remember everything about the day I first saw her. […] At first, I couldn't really make out her face, blurred by a faint, gauzy light, and I was transfixed. Later I came to appreciate its beauty, and an almost blinding brightness in her eyes. […] She was calm, her serenity drawing people to her. Sometimes it even seemed like she moved objects.” (p. 5 in Turkish; p. 3 in the English language translation*)

Throughout the novel, Zuhal is described with unusual statements of this kind: “Then she stood up and walked over to an old coffee machine in the corner, slipping past me like a flash of light”; “Her voice was soft, almost a whisper […]”; “She slept calmly and peacefully, like the unhurried nature of her voice, the curve of her feet under the white sheet like puffs of smoke” (p. 249 in Turkish; 222 in English), etc.

In general, Zuhal is surrounded in vagueness -- and not just physically, but also emotionally. For instance, she is striving to get away from the man she is in love with, and for that reason she decides to conceive a baby with him (?).

It’s easy to understand that Zuhal is a metaphor or a symbol, but it's not as easy to analyze that metaphor. For until the last quarter of the narrative, she doesn't reveal her true color. The character refutes all of the comments made about her one by one, but then, all of a sudden, over just a few pages, she appears in the form of a “muse.” At long last, in the 276th page [of the original Turkish version; p. 247 in the English version] the novelist recalls, “In those days she had appointed herself the task of helping me write the novel I would write. And every day she wrote to me with ideas and suggestions,” giving us his first ever clue as to the metaphor. After that point on, we read about the ideas Zuhal inspires, and of course, every single one is like a summary of Endgame.

“[…] the writer is a man with experience in matters of the heart … and the woman is madly in love with him … now she is a slave to him and no longer struggles to break free … it even gives her a twisted pleasure […] in my opinion you explain it so well” (p. 276, 277 in Turkish; 247, 248 in English). Zuhal doesn't stop at that, she goes on to recount to us the story that we are already reading.

Which means, the inspiration for the novel came from “Zuhal.” But there is another man in Zuhal’s life other than the novelist; she is in a relationship with the Mayor Mustafa. Could a mayor have a muse? How so? The novelist explains: “While she was helping me write my book, I assumed she was also helping Mustafa with his work in town,” (p. 277, 278 in Turkish; 248 in English) and then goes on to recount with the words of Mustafa:

“‘Look. This is the world’s most beautiful town. Just look at the coast, the mountains, the olive groves and orchards, all the fruit. Have you seen anywhere more stunning? I don't think so. Even morning I wake up even more devoted to the place. Every morning before I go to work I go up on that hill and look out over the town.’

“He was beside himself as he said all this.

“‘Then look at all those nasty buildings in town. Do they complement the surroundings? Do we have the right to sully God’s beauty?’

“He sighed.

“[…] If we tore down those ghastly buildings, turned the coast into an endless beachfront, restored the church […]” (p. 280 in Turkish; 250, 251 in English.)

Goes on and on…

Starting with these lines, up until the end of the novel, Zuhal can be interpreted as a muse.

Before we wrap up our analysis of Zuhal, we must highlight the part where Zuhal asks the protagonist to “sell” her. This part in the novel deserves careful consideration as much as it deserves praise. This part suggests that Altan, an author whose books often hit bestsellers lists, is aware of the quality of his writing, that he is deliberately making this choice. It shows that Altan is an author who knows what makes true literature, but that he is also aware of the state of literature in his country. It’s as if he’s saying, “I’m capable of doing better, but you only deserve this much.”

Kamile Hanım: It’s not possible to prove that Kamile Hanım represents “journalism” by just looking at the text, without taking a glance at Altan’s personal life. In fact, up until the murder scene in the final part of the novel, it’s not easy to even guess that Kamile too is a symbol.

But that the protagonist is stuck between two women towards the end of the book, and that one of these women is the muse, makes one think that the other woman might stand for another concept. If we look back on the entire novel with a focus on Kamile, we’ll see that this character too is a symbol.

In creating Kamile Hanım, Altan made use of a modern literary device -- contrast. Whatever Zuhal stands for, Kamile represents the opposite end: Zuhal is young and inexperienced whereas Kamile is older and mature; Zuhal is beautiful and attractive whereas Kamile lacks these qualities; Zuhal is extremely sentimental while Kamile is always reasonable and calm. In contrast with the always helpful Zuhal, Kamile is “selfish and insatiable.” There are many examples of this kind throughout the book, but Altan has more up his sleeve: a very elegant thing, which is to describe Kamile in perfect detail. In contrast to Zuhal, Kamile is the most genuine character in the entire book. While he refrains from describing any physical aspects of Zuhal, Altan offers such a vivid description of Kamile that he even describes the curves of her upper body when she sits down. None of the other characters in the book is described in such detail. The amount of clarity, however, prevents the reader from easily discerning the fact that Kamile too serves as a symbol. Yet again, through this contrast Altan does not only create the most genuine character in the book, but also points one more time at the contrast between Zuhal and Kamile.

However, all these have nothing to do with “journalism.” If we forget about Altan for a moment and focus solely on the text, we can simply say that if there’s one thing that we can be sure about Kamile Hanım, it’s that she is the exact opposite of Zuhal. So if Zuhal is the muse, Kamile could be anything that kills inspiration. The most probable answer is that “Kamile,” just like her name implies, might have to do with such concepts like “reason” or “logic.” So as not to get in the way of further interpretations, Altan stops at the very point he knows he needs to stop and doesn't fall into the trap of the ease of allegory. So we should be stopping here too.

Murder: At long last, we’ve come to the finale. The novelist is assuming that Kamile will have Zuhal killed, and in order to prevent this from happening he pulls his gun on Kamile. She then hits his hand and the gun goes off. Although the novelist says, “I didn't see any blood,” he leaves the house thinking he has murdered her.

But let’s proceed in accordance with the order of events. To begin with, was Kamile really going to have Zuhal killed? Look what the novelist has to say:

“At that moment I was sure that Kamile was going to order the hit, and my suspicions only grew as I walked, though I could never be entirely sure; but I had seen that expression on her face, and I wasn't wrong about that. I saw her conviction. But still I will never know for sure.”

There’s nothing more to say. He was sure at that moment, but now he’s not that sure.

Here’s another question: Did Kamile Hanım really die? This is exactly where Altan plays a trick on us. Since he has the concept of “murder mystery” ingrained in our minds from the beginning of the book, when a gun goes off towards the end of the story we all go, “There we go!” But what kind of a murder is this? First of all, Kamile hits the gun and causes it to go off. Secondly, the novelist is pretty fast in jumping to the conclusion that Kamile is dead -- without even checking her pulse and calling for help.

Let’s go back to the “murder” scene:

“I drew my gun. I don't know why I did it. I suppose I wanted to frighten her because I knew that if she answered the phone everything would change. I wanted to stop her with a threat. Nothing more. But then I had no idea what to do after that.

“She stood up. The look on her face was firm, full of anger and derision. She hit my hand. I can’t really remember much more after that. I only heard the shot. She opened her mouth to say something and then winced, one arm in the air and the other on her stomach; and then I saw her fall to her knees; but I didn't see any blood.” (p. 406 in Turkish; 369 in English)

The novelist sits on a bench out on the street, thinking he has murdered someone, and starts telling us the story of “the murder.” This way, the text comes full circle.

We can now clearly see that “the murder” has not been committed at all. We now know what the characters Kamile and Zuhal represent, and that Altan would not even let Kamile get wounded, let alone “kill her” (“I didn't see any blood”); but that at the same time he wouldn't refrain from “selling” Zuhal. At this point we can see both the naive novelist who thinks he is a “murderer” with his “murder mystery” readers, and the not so naive novelist with his readers. Altan’s aim here is to kill two birds with one stone. It would be fair to say that he succeeds.

Let’s now take a look at the allegory of the nation in the novel, which can be deemed tricky considering our present situation. In this part of the article we will not be turning the spotlight on every single word of criticism Altan uses in the book, but any reader who can follow trail in light of the symbols that will be analyzed below will be able to discover the author’s point for his or herself.

Our novelist arrives in this town in the hope of writing the “murder mystery” he had long been willing to. He decides to settle in this town that he actually visited by chance after stopping by at a restaurant by the name of Köfteci Remzi because he loves the food there. It’s of course needless to say that the name Köfteci Remzi calls to mind a very famous restaurant chain in Turkey. Furthermore, in a later chapter where a meet up with Ramiz takes place at Remzi’s köfte restaurant, it immediately makes one curious whether it could be a case of “subliminal advertising.” But let’s just move on. The town where our novelist decides to settle is one that is highly extraordinary. Murders take place on a constant basis in this town but the townsfolk seem to have grown accustomed to murders; their daily lives are not even interrupted. The town has a mayor. At the beginning, he looks like a hardworking man which the townsfolk is very much supportive of, but in time he changes because of his hunger for power. The tensions that arise between the town’s bigwigs and the mayor eventually escalate into a war, destroying the entire town. The battle is fought around a supposed treasure hidden somewhere in the town.

Now, even this very brief and rough summary should be enough to tell of Altan’s points of criticism in Endgame. Before moving on to analyze the rest of the symbols, it should be noted that the allegorical symbols and the symbolic characters Altan has created in the novel are very easy to analyze. There is not much of a particular writing talent or a narrative success to talk about. What makes Altan’s allegory interesting is the fact that everything we read about in Endgame has actually been happening in Turkey for quite a while. The book, written even before the nationwide Gezi Park protests, includes everything from raids on private businesses, eavesdropping and spying to oppression, coups and civil war. All of these suggest a kind of foresight that at times almost resembles prophecy. Although Endgame shows us that the direction Turkey was headed was crystal clear long ago, in “New Turkey” this book could be deemed a piece of evidence against Altan on grounds that he was informed of things that were about to happen by “a mastermind.”

We can now take a closer look at the other symbols:

The town: Endgame is set in an unspecified town. Aside from being like a paradise and its beautiful landscapes, the town has some remarkable oddities. Altan assigns multiple meanings to many of these peculiarities. For example, early in the story, the novelist comes across a sign in the town that reads: “Sea for sale.” No comment is made in the book on this particular strangeness, but Altan expects us to figure out that “everything in this town is about unearned revenue!”

Another peculiarity is that everybody in the town smokes weed: “Everyone was always a little stoned. Even the women in town. ‘What do you expect, abi? Even the kids smoke,’ they would tell me.” (p. 41 in Turkish, p. 34 in English) Altan once again expects us to see that the “townsfolk are in a state of collective euphoria; they don't have their feet on the ground; they’re living in a dream world.” The murders constitute another eccentricity. The author states several times throughout the novel that a murder is seen as an ordinary incident in this town. Here’s how the book points at this “routine”:

“Then the prosecutor came and the statements were repeated to him and he had a quick look around before he left. Not long after that an ambulance came for the body. Then Centipede mopped the floor and everything went back to normal. No sign that a man just died there. […] Remzi sat down at my table with a glass of tea. ‘Dead and gone,’ he said.‘The man’s actually dead,’ I said.” (p. 63, 64 in Turkish; p. 52, 53 in English)

Thus we’re convinced that this is not an ordinary town, that it must be the representation of something else.

There are phrases such as “Almost everything in the town seemed from another time” (p. 37 in Turkish; p. 30 in English), and “‘The public good’ was a magic word in this town, bandied about for any kind of ‘benefit’” (p. 178 in Turkish; 157 in English). In short, we understand that in Endgame, the phrase “the town” actually implies Turkey or a similar country.

Often in novels where the author has chosen to employ an allegorical narrative style, the allegory begins as early as the novel’s first sentence. However, the implication of that first sentence can only become clear after a complete interpretation of the entire book. This is also the case with Endgame, whose first sentence is brief and to the point: “The town was sleeping.”

At first glance, this sentence doesn't seem to have a special meaning. But I guess we all know by now what Altan was implying. We are all “sleeping.”

Mayor Mustafa: The town has a mayor, but actually there’s not too much that can be said about him. Zuhal makes it clear enough, for both our novelist who's in love with her, and us, the readers: “He’s the sultan here.” (p. 45 in English translation.) This is a proper definition that the Mayor Mustafa deserves. We see why in the following chapters, when he is totally consumed by his hunger for power:

“There was an expression on his face I’d never seen before. In the lines of his face I could make out the exhilaration of a man full of the passionate desire to achieve things others never dreamed of, possibilities other people would never see; […] and the confidence that he was the only man to do it, whatever the cost; and a decisiveness and a pride that told him he was cleverer than all the others. […] In those eyes you could see the will of someone who believed no obstacle was insurmountable, that he was the only one who could help others; a frightening display of willpower prepared to crush anyone in his way. […] He knew what he was going to do, and he felt no compulsion to explain, indeed it only boiled his blood to feel compelled to explain himself.” (p. 282 in Turkish; 252 in English)

There are many similar expressions throughout Endgame. In the book, Mustafa is often said to have “gone mad” and that he had dragged the entire town into catastrophe. We will be looking at the “treasure” that is mentioned in the following excerpt shortly.

“‘Mustafa has lost his mind and now the entire town has gone mad too.’

“‘What’s he done?’

“‘He tried to get to the treasure on his own, pushing everyone else away, showing disrespect, bad manners. He doesn't want anyone to have any control so that when he starts digging again no one will be able to stop him. […] Once he takes control of the hill, he’s the only man who controls it. The treasure’s there or it’s not, but the town is yours. No one could challenge you then’.” (p. 265 in Turkish, 236 in English)

Clearly, Altan has made conscious choices while naming his characters in Endgame. The expressions cited above give us clues about the person represented by the symbol “Mustafa.” However, the name itself also calls to mind Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In any case, Altan implies a “one-man” situation -- he pulls no punches, spares no one.

The treasure: The treasure is a key symbol in Endgame. Altan uses this symbol to refer to two separate concepts at the same time: “unearned revenue” and things that are considered “sacred.” The townsfolk believe that Jesus Christ is buried at the hill overlooking the town and that there is a treasure underneath the church atop the hill. Our novelist says countless times throughout the novel that this treasure is causing the townsfolk to go paranoid, that it’s driving them out of their minds. And eventually the treasure causes collective hysteria in town. Whether this “treasure” does exist or not is ambiguous. The excerpt below is the only instance in the entire book where the much talked about “treasure” is seen first-hand:

“This is it?” I said, disappointed. “This right here is the heart of the town,” said Mustafa. […] I looked around. It was a little stone room, completely empty. Stone floors. It was nothing like what I had imagined. This ‘legendary’ place which captivated the imagination of a town, and for which people had died, was nothing more than a rundown little building. […] “There’s nothing here, Mustafa,” I said. […] “You can’t understand, outsiders never do. […] This church is what makes this town. Even if there isn't a treasure, well, there is as long as we believe in it. It’s the soul of the town. Without it, everything would fall apart. And then of course you see there really is a treasure here.” (p. 207, 208 in Turkish; 184, 185 in English)

This treasure -- something that cannot be understood by outsiders, but at the same time something the entire town believes in; something that is both sacred and that brings revenue, and something that eventually destroys the whole town -- can be interpreted in countless different ways. It’s highly probable this symbol is inclusive of all kinds of comments.

There are many more interesting details to be discovered when Endgame is read carefully in light of all the information above. Ahmet Altan’s “end-game” is still waiting for more readers to join in the game.