The human as board game

Montage of the Turkish author Kuzey Topuz and the cover of her debut novel, translated into German by Johannes Neuner and published by Dagyeli
Kuzey Topuz conjures up a world full of damaged existences, hero worship, psychological violence and toxic masculinity (source: Dagyeli)

In her debut novel, "Der Freund" (The Friend), Kuzey Topuz has created a complex weave of fragments and perspectives. The book is all about power and influence in interpersonal relations and at a societal level. It's a masterstroke

By Gerrit Wustmann

"This is a fantasy theory. This is a theory about fantasy". These are the opening lines in Der Freund, the debut novel of Istanbul-born author Kuzey Topuz, translated into German by Johannes Neuner and recently published by Dagyeli.

Just above these two sentences, on the first page, is a mysterious drawing of a board game. "Dialectics", "thought crime", "golden age" and "nostalgia" are just some of the spaces on the board. What's it all about? The answer to this question is slowly revealed throughout the novel in which the first-person narrator and her older adoptive sister – with the telling name Sevgi (Love) – move their figures around the board, which the narrator has dug up from the dust of her childhood. 

And just like so many childhood memories, this too is diffuse: she knows she liked the game, yet can't remember how to play it. So, she re-invents it, while at the same time trying to teach Sevgi her own, personal version of the game, which is called "Who was and where is our missing friend? And was he ever a friend at all? And what does 'friend' mean anyway?" 

He, who remains nameless, was a storyteller. The sisters hung on his every word without actually hearing what he said. They were captivated by him, completely under his spell, dependent on him. Yet all that is only clear now that he has vanished, without an explanation, leaving only the penetrating acetone smell of his breath behind, a smell that hangs spectre-like in the air, a solvent of life. Did he ever care about the sisters or just about himself? Was he there for them, or did he use them? Was his love a form of violence? 

A novel of fragments

To get to the bottom of these questions, the sisters must re-invent him, piecing him together from real and fake memories and anecdotes, from their dreams, fantasies and the reality outside their window where he is hiding.

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Kuzey Topuz's novel is told in fragments. It is cryptic and follows at some points an associative dream logic that is reminiscent of Kafka's "The Trial", while at the same time having a very distinctive voice and structure and following a language of symbols and metaphors usually used in poetry. For example: is Sevgi really human, the sister of the narrator? Does she actually exist? 

Or is she, as her name implies, a symbol? Does she stand for what the protagonist herself is trying to explain or for an escape from the labyrinthine life reflected in the labyrinthine structure of the story? The same question applies to the "baristas", who sleep in sweatshops so the tobacco seller can sell their dreams – the good, the bad, the actually dreamed and the purely fictional.

The resulting atmosphere is claustrophobic, oppressive, perhaps also because every now and then, hints of actual, real political-societal conditions in contemporary Turkey force their way into the novel's events. Political violence breaks into the private sphere, leaving its mark on the way people treat each other, which implicitly begs the question as to how harmonious a relationship between a man and a woman can be in such a societal atmosphere.

Kuzey Topuz was born in Istanbul in 1995 and has published numerous shorter texts in magazines and periodicals. She made several short films while studying film at university. In 2020, she came to Stuttgart, Germany, as a fellow at Schloss Solitude, where she wrote Der Freund, which was first published in Turkey in 2022. She is currently studying linguistics in Leipzig. 

During a reading at this year's Leipzig Book Fair, her publisher Mario Pschera asked her whether it was the political situation in Turkey that moved her to leave the country. Topuz replied: "I was afraid all the time and I didn't want to be afraid every day. It was too tiring." When Pschera mentioned the huge women's demonstrations in Istanbul that are held on 8 March every year. Topuz nodded, but said that bringing about change "is not only up to us [the women]". 

And while all of this is reflected in her novel, it is the book's linguistic and structural brilliance that impresses the most. Der Freund is highly complex literature that makes demands on the reader. This is not a book to dip into from time to time; it is a book that has to be read several times to grasp it, to find one's way through the tangle of stories and voices. 

Many readers are put off by this kind of thing, even though the opposite should be the case, because this is the kind of literature that really has something to say to us and that will endure because it is timeless – and not just because of the timeless themes it explores. 

Gerrit Wustmann

© 2024

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

"Der Freund", by Kuzey Topuz, ISBN: 9783910948037