Short Story Review – Çiler İlhan – Number 5, The Seed, Dimwits, Wreck (Trans. Ayşegül Toroser Ateş)

Please note – this short story collection was kindly provided to me by Istros Books.  I intend to work my way through this collection in chunks rather than stepping through them individually, as the stories are all very short and connected thematically.

I am a sensitive soul.  I have no real trouble admitting this.  I tear up when people show clear love for one another, whether it is the love of a father for a child, a son for a parent, a sister to a brother, a man for a woman, a man for a man.  And so on.  Romantic or familial – they both get to me.  I feel a lump in my throat.

And that’s just about all I am sensitive towards.  Stories about dogs being hurt don’t upset me much, though I never want my dog to be hurt and would be devastated if anything happened to him.

Ok, let’s stop prevaricating.  Something which previously did not make me upset was talk of children.  Of babies.  I like them, and always have, but stories about them aren’t a gut punch.

Now, in July of 2018, with my wife 7 months pregnant, they are a gut punch.

The stories in Çiler İlhan’s Exile contain miscarriages, abortions, hopeless pregnant girls, murdered women, starving babies.  It’s rough for me, when a year ago it might not have been.  I have become more compassionate, which I am thankful for, but it has made the stories harder to read.

Oh, İlhan, you know how to insert the knife and twist it.

This preamble is to say that these stories are heartfelt and heartbreaking, and I’m honestly at times in awe of the emotions she is able to coax from me with only a few words, a few paragraphs, a page or two.  All of these stories are short, and they are blunt, and they are written in the language of the people who live the stories.  Emotions and events are wrapped up in endless subordinate clauses or four- five- six-syllable words.  This is simple writing, speaking plainly of terrible things, which means it is very sophisticated indeed.

Number 5 is the story of a fetus who was supposed to be perfect but was found, near the end of its term, to be imperfect and unacceptable.  A forced abortion (at nine months!) is avoided, but still the mother knows she has done wrong.  This is a science fiction story, a story about genetic engineering, but it is really a story about the helplessness of pregnancy, how dependent the woman is on the father, the family, the medical system, the state.  And often these entities do not care and in fact have vested interests in the child not existing at all. The father vanishes, she drives her car off a cliff, the baby lives, the story ends.

Tears, tears, tears.

Although not altogether certain, it is possible that it all started
with my father’s father’s father’s father. (The Seed)

The Seed is another story concerned with the sins of ancestors, showing the way in which evil travels down the family tree.  For me, this story was the first weak part of the collection, however the last paragraph is brutal and horrible and makes it all worthwhile.  Ilhan is showing us the lengths abused children will go to attempt to justify their betrayers, the mental gymnastics which must be performed to accept that your father – your father – is the one who has raped you.  There must be a valid reason for it, and for the narrator of this story, that reason is the seed of evil which has traveled all down the family line.

Implied, but left alone for now, is whether the narrator, too, will carry that seed down to their own children.  Will they stop the rape and the violence, or will they continue it?  The reader fears for the answer because we already know what it is.

I told these buggers, ‘if you must do it, do it on the quiet’, I said. (Dimwits)

A very short piece on child abuse by a gloating Pope.  The skies have blackened and the sun has become incapable of shining brightly.  Leaves and hands and smiles and doorways are brittle.  Colours smudge if you touch them.

And then Wreck touches on survivor’s guilt, and again it’s a girl who is suffering.  How can you feel anything but guilt when most of your family drowns but you are saved?  When you had a chance to help your brother, but now he is lost to the water?  The girl’s torment is clear in the crisp, clean sentences which make up this piece.

Ilhan is a powerful writer.  She is powerful in the aggregate, blinding in the accumulation of violence and evil, and staggering in the small moments of each individual story.  This is a truly impressive collection, brutal and harsh and cruel and unkind.  But the text is not evil, because Ilhan never luxuriates in the evil.  It’s worse for the characters that everything is so matter-of-fact, but stronger for the text, as it provides some small sunlight for the reader, a tiny crack in the wall where we can attempt – just attempt, mind – to insert our own sympathies for these poor, damaged people.

Also under review from the same collection:

Number 5, The Seed, Dimwits, Wreck are short stories by Turkish writer Çiler İlhan, and were translated by Ayşegül Toroser Ateş.  This collection was pubished by Istros Books and is available from their website.

Author Çiler İlhan
Titles Number 5, The Seed, Dimwits, Wreck
Translator Ayşegül Toroser Ateş
Nationality Turkish
Publisher Istros Books

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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