Yavuz Ekinci's new novel
"My memories got lost in deserted villages," says Hatice, one of the protagonists in Yavuz Ekinci's novel, newly published in German as Das ferne Dorf meiner Kindheit. She is on her deathbed, and at this point none of her children gathered around her knows that she took the name Hatice under pressure from her husband, giving up her Armenian name.
"First the village where I was born and raised and fell in love was devastated, then the other village where I was married, brought my children into the world and delighted in them was burned down. Are my memories all that remains amid the rubble of two villages?"
Ekinci's novel was first published in Turkey in 2012, and it is his third to appear in German translation. He grew up in Batman and until recently lived in Istanbul as a writer, teacher and editor of a series of books on Kurdish exile literature.
For a long time, he was spared the Turkish regime's witch hunt against intellectuals who criticised it, until in 2022 charges were brought against him for tweets that were almost a decade old.
He was accused of spreading propaganda for the PKK, and was ultimately given an eighteen-month suspended sentence. A similar argument was used to ban Ekinci's novel Ruyasi Bolunenler ('dream divided') a short time later.
Ekinci tackles big subjects. Two of his other novels are available in German: Der Tag, an dem ein Mann vom Berg Amar kam ('the day a man came from Mount Amar') tells the story of a nameless village that is threatened by a nameless army until things come to a final, terrible head.
It's a book that can be read in many ways, the cultural battles within Turkey are not all that smoulders between its lines.
There is also the fear of a despotic state, and the everyday uncertainty as to whether your own life might lie in ruins tomorrow along with the village itself.
And in Die Tränen des Propheten ('the tears of the prophet') Ekinci, with the blackest of black humour, launches his protagonist into an attempt to establish himself as a new prophet in the age of Twitter – though he follows his calling quite reluctantly and stumbles from one gaffe to the next.
Das Ferne Dorf meiner Kindheit (translated into German by Gerhard Meier and newly published by Kunstmann) is about things that people do not talk about in Turkey to this day, or which are simply denied: the genocide against the Armenians, the brutal war waged on Kurdish villages by the Turkish army and authorities.
On one hand. On the other, it is about traditional, patriarchal social structures, religion and superstition, and childish naivety colliding with the horrors of reality. And shattering on impact.
The story, structured as a triptych and spanning almost a century, begins with the perspective of Rustem, a little boy who sees the constraints and conflicts of his Kurdish village community with a child's naive eyes.
He, his father and sisters live with his grandmother Hatice and her husband Hassan; his brother has gone away into the mountains, and the police repeatedly raid the house, looking for him. In the state's eyes he is a terrorist; for the village, he is a beacon of hope; and for Rustem he is just the big brother he wants to see again.
Ekinci doesn't pull any punches
Life in the village is traditional. People are religious and read the Koran, but sometimes also like to interpret the rules to suit their own ends. The local Imam is strict but kind, and always there when someone needs help. Rustem can't wait to be a grown-up, a real man, even if he isn't completely sure what that means.
When your milk teeth fall out, you're a man, one person says. When you get your first erection and stop being allowed to takes baths with the women, says another. And his father sees starting school as the most important step.
But Rustem's excitement over the first day of school soon turns to confusion: the teacher, who venerates an idealised, distorted image of Ataturk, as so many people in Turkey do, forbids the children from speaking Kurdish from day one.
When Rustem's brother doesn't come back, and is spotted carrying weapons in the Kandil mountains, the army finally storms the village, murders the Imam, burns down the houses. It is the second time Grandmother Hatice has had to live through this horror.
She was the only survivor in her village of the 1915 genocide. Hassan took her in, changed her name, forced her to convert and kept the secret to himself.
All her life she has never spoken of it, even when her children stepped on insects and said they were just "Armenians".
Ekinci doesn't pull any punches. He gives us a world in which people are either perpetrators or unknowingly speak the language of the perpetrators, or are forced into doing so – or they have to say nothing and deny their own identity in order to stay alive.
The horror continues
And so the horror that came with the birth of the Turkish Republic continues to this very day.
Ataturk's ethnic narrative cannot exist without violence – the novel doesn't say as much, but it is the message between the lines that can hardly be ignored.
In this world, violence persists beyond death. Just as all those years ago during the genocide, its victims' corpses were violated, today a simple funeral can become a political act.
Rustem's grandmother doesn't take her secret to the grave – she shares it with her children at the last minute. Because she knows she can trust them. But she also knows that in the end, it won't help.
This and his other novels have made Yavuz Ekinci one of the most important voices in contemporary Turkish literature. A great storyteller and an elegant stylist who links modern prose with Turkish and Kurdish narrative traditions. He allows both narrative traditions to form a literary symbiosis, while also not shying away from subjects that others in Turkey give a wide berth to. The result is world literature of the highest order.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin
Yavuz Ekincis, "Das ferne Dorf meiner Kindheit", translated into German by Gerhard Meier and published by Antje Kunstmann.
Yavuz Ekinci, born in Batman in 1979, works as a teacher and is the editor of a series on Kurdish exile literature. Ekinci has received numerous prizes for his prose work, including the Human Rights Association Story Award. His most recent novels are "The Day a Man Came from Mount Amar" (2017) and "The Tears of the Prophet" (2019). Ekinci now lives in Hamburg.