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.

Advertisements

New YouTube video – This Book Means Everything to Me – César Aira’s The Literary Conference

My most recent upload to YouTube is the first in what I hope is a series in which I discuss the books that have meant a lot to me.  These books have helped shape my life, my thinking on literature, and my understanding of what books can achieve.

The first video is on César Aira’s The Literary Conference.  I apologise in advance for the terrible editing job midway through.  I will improve my video skills!

And here is the link – This Book Means Everything to Me – César Aira’s The Literary Conference.

Short Story Review – Çiler İlhan – You Killed, Batman, My Daughter, Baby Girl (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.

Blood runs through these stories.  It’s shocking how little life is valued in them, particularly the lives of women and girls.  They mean nothing, nothing, and it’s tough to read.  Sometimes, parents or siblings care for a daughter or a sister or a mother, but that doesn’t stopped them from being harmed, or abused, or killed.  And very often they don’t care for her at all.

Çiler İlhan is unflinching in her descriptions, but cleverly and carefully, she avoids using shocking words or overly detailed descriptions to add weight to her stories.  What is being portrayed is horrific enough – the words used to show these activities or highlight these practices or go over these family histories, are not.  They are the kinds of words that you or I would use in a normal day, and that juxtaposition serves to strengthen the impact they have upon what is being told.

The country İlhan is describing is no place for a woman, no place for a girl.

You Killed is a powerful piece which uses the opening of ‘You killed’ to describe the deaths of family and friends and, later, of hope and beauty.  This very brief piece begins by cataloguing the deaths of individuals before shifting to explain the termination of dreams and the future.  To kill is not only to murder a life but also to deprive that individual, and all the other people they have touched or might touch, with the infinite possibilities of existing which are no longer possible.

You killed my mother. You killed my father: My uncles and my aunts. You killed my grandmother and my grandfather: My cousins, their wives: My father’s sisters, their husbands. You killed me within. (You Killed)

Batman touches on suicide, repeating the question, “Why do so many women commit suicide in Batman?”.  The answers are horrific.  Sexual abuse from family members, revenge-rape, vendettas.  Women’s lives are cheap.  They are punished for being a victim, punished for the sins of their family, punished for not being a virgin, punished by being forced to marry their rapist, to live in seclusion.

We are invisible at home and in the street. Like an old piece of rag that cleans the floors, the windows, the doors. We are put to all sorts of work. Life becomes even more unbearable once we start to blossom, once we are fragrant. Bored with our mothers, whose breasts have sagged, whose flesh has lost their firmness from giving birth a dozen times, the gazes of our fathers alight on our newly budding breasts. Suddenly our mothers go blind, our brothers deaf. (Batman)

My Daughter is an exceptionally strong piece, made even stronger by what has come before.  After all of the misery, all of the violence, this story opens up with a concerned parent looking for their child.  Good.  The tone is mild – she’s not in her bed, but she’s somewhere, right?  The girl’s brothers gather around the mother.  They explain what has happened.  It’s simple, see.  She brought shame upon the family.  She had to die, and they had to kill her.

The accumulation of violence in the preceding stories helps prepare the reader for this, but the tone of the piece lulls one into thinking that maybe there is a ray of light here.  There is not.  This was a gut-punch.

Repeating bismillah over and over again, I ran into my daughter’s room. She wasn’t there. I went back to the kitchen. Her three brothers were staring intently at my face. The youngest started sobbing.

‘Mother, you keep our secret,’ said the eldest. I sat there and cried my eyes out, oh God, what else was I going to do. But there is no escape from fate. In the end I decided, what could I do, I’m a mother and I’ve lost my daughter, let me at least not lose my other children. And so I have not said a word to anyone for nine years. I’m so very sorry. (My Daughter)

And then Baby Girl was where I had to stop for the time being.  This story, also brief (they are all brief because evil must be contained in some manner), is from the perspective of the leader of a pack of dogs.  They are scrounging around in a cemetery, when they smell a live human.  They dig, their actions are noticed, the police come.  Yes, a baby, buried alive.  The dogs are happy – the narrator is a cheerful soul, pleased with himself and pleased he was rewarded by the police chief with some bones – but we cannot be.  This is the abyss, folks, we are staring into it.  We don’t know why and aren’t told why a baby (and from the title we can assume a girl) was buried alive, but the three stories before that have provided enough context to make a guess.

When the world is this dark, it’s clear that women are worthless.

You Killed, Batman, My Daughter, Baby Girl 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.

Also under review from the same collection:

Author Çiler İlhan
Titles You Killed, Batman, My Daughter, Baby Girl
Translator Ayşegül Toroser Ateş
Nationality Turkish
Publisher Istros Books

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

Short Story Review – Çiler İlhan – Zobar and Başa, Iraq II, Ball, I’m a Bastard! (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.

Çiler İlhan’s short story collection, Exile, is split into five sections – Exile, Crime, Revenge, Cry, Return.  The first section, Exile, has one story – Zobar and Başa – which will be discussed below, while Crime has eighteen, three of which will be discussed in this piece.

I will take Zobar and Başa as a framing device of sorts, or as an overview of the themes present within.  Perhaps I am right, and perhaps not, though I think I have the right idea (I am reading blind), as the final section, Return, has a single story, also titled Zobar and Başa.  We shall see.

They’d taken care of us ever since they snatched us out of the clutch of the Grim Reaper back in Romania, so how could I not cry? My sweet Tinke kept licking my tears as I cried… (Zobar)

Zobar and Başa is brief – these stories are all very brief – focusing on emotions and images rather than activity.  It’s clear that this family is falling apart, and perhaps the neighbourhood, too.  People are leaving, forced out, anxious to go, and equally anxious to follow their family members and friends.

Come, almond eyes, let ourselves be our homeland. (Zobar)

The section Crime becomes clearer.  In each of the three stories considered, a ‘crime’ has been committed, and while, yes, these are usually related to government violence against citizens, the crime seems to me to be that of the failed state clinging to power via murder, social thievery, fascism.  It’s not safe to simply be, to live.  You might be killed for a sentence, or beaten for a word.

In Ball, which is the most powerful of the four, a child watches their brother as he is beaten to death by gendarmes.  Why?  It’s unclear.  Normally, when the older boys are playing football the gendarmes take the ball.  This time they start shooting.  They kick.  They beat.

…then Dad came. They didn’t let him in either. Ten minutes later the gendarme came over. Your son’s heart has failed, must have had a heart condition, he told Dad. It’s a lie. My brother was fit as a fiddle. (Ball)

Over the centuries, by far the greatest proponent, disseminator and participant in violence against others has been the state.  Under the rule of this or that government uncountable millions of people have died.  And when violence is sanctioned by the state, the lives of citizens become worthless. Young men are killed without hesitation.  Young women suffer sexual violence.  Children are worth nothing.

The stories are all very short – we are talking one to two pages.  The crime is, so far, that of accumulation, highlighting that, in certain times and certain situations, to exist is to have committed a crime, at least in the eyes of the government.  In I’m a Bastard!, a police officer only realises that the person woman he had brutalised (because she asked a government official a question) was actually a human being when he sees her suffering captured in a newspaper.  He needs to be disassociated from his own activities before he is able to appreciate what he is done.  Before that, she was nothing – she deserved it – she asked for it – if she didn’t want to be beaten, why did she speak out?

Of the four stories, two are explicitly narrated by a woman, one by a man, and the third is unclear, though from the way it is written, I believe a younger female.  All are from the first-person perspective, and all have the matter-of-fact tone of acceptance.  This is how things are.

Well, that’s slightly untrue.  The most emotional of the four narrators is the police officer, because his world has been shaken.  The worlds of the others have not – they expect violence.  They understand that a football game in a field could turn to death.  They don’t like it, of course, but that is life.

Also under review from the same collection:

Zobar and Başa, Iraq II, Ball, I’m a Bastard! 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 Zobar and Başa, Iraq II, Ball, I’m a Bastard!
Translator Ayşegül Toroser Ateş
Nationality Turkish
Publisher Istros Books

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