November Reading Recap

It may be in the mid-50s and sunny here in mid-Missouri, but the Calendar says that today is December 1. Here is a review of the reading I did in November before I jump back into the craziness that is the end of the academic term.

  1. Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov – One of Nabokov’s early works, this novel follows the professor Adam Krug, an intellectual celebrity from a nation that espouses an ideology of militant mediocrity, as the leader of the country tries to seduce him into endorsing the state philosophy. There were some bitter and funny passages in Bend Sinister, but Nabokov writes like a pompous a…the book operates on a number of different levels that I sometimes found difficult to follow. This may have been that I was reading the novel as a night-cap during a week of frantic writing and I may need to read it again when I am less distracted.
  2. Snow, Orhan Pamuk – The book that took me most of a month to read because of the world beyond the book. The most common review of Pamuk’s work I have seen is that he is adept at spinning out hundreds of pages without character or plot development. I cannot totally disagree. Snow is the report of the novelist Orhan’s investigation into the death of his friend Ka, a Turkish poet who lives in exile in Germany. The bulk of the novel is a recounting of the events that took place in the frontier town of Kars in Eastern Anatolia during a three day stretch when a snowstorm cut the town off from the rest of Turkey and the local military officers staged a coup against the rising power of political Islam. Ostensibly, Ka had gone to Kars to write an article about the “headscarf girls,” young women who were committing suicide because the schools were forcing them to remove their scarves. But, as the reader quickly discovers, the article is an excuse to visit Kars–Ka has actually gone there hoping to take up with one of his former schoolmates, and the wife (now separated) of another schoolmate and current local politician with one of the Islamist parties in Kars. In Kars, Ka finds himself once more inspired to write poetry.

    This is the short and straightforward version of the plot. Usually I am a reader who needs to like one or more of the characters in a book to really find myself drawn in, but that was not the case with Snow. I didn’t really like any of the characters, but Pamuk’s prose invoked a dream-like state when I was reading it. I sympathized with individual passages and felt a connection with individual episodes, but, more than anything I connected with the setting. As in all of Pamuk’s work I have yet read, the Turkish identity crisis–between the Turkish communities in Germany, urbane Istanbul, and poor, hodge-podge remote areas of Anatolia–features prominently in Snow. I still cannot put my finger on exactly why, but I really enjoyed this novel, and it was a perfect prelude to the next book.

  3. Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation, Kerem Öktem – Reviewed here, Öktem argues that Turkey is a nation built upon a series of (often totalitarian) paradoxes, deep state actors, and ethnic tensions. He suggests that the people have largely been left out of the equation in Turkey, being manipulated by the various political actors rather than being served by the government, even when the elected officials have had the upper hand.

Next up, I am about a quarter of the way through Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and just received a copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

Kerem Öktem, Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation, New York: Zed Books, 2011.

Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation is an installment in the series “Global History of the Present,” which is intended to introduce aspects of world history since 1989 and the end of the Cold War. Rather than trying to write an all-encompassing history of the past two and half decades, the series deals with limited subjects and buys into the premise that, more than ever, the world consists of multiple, overlapping, fragmented narratives that defy hegemony and polarities, while also connecting local developments to international trends. Angry Nation immediately predates the Syrian Civil War and the explosive protests in Gezi Park, but Öktem provides a lucid introduction to the contemporary issues.

Despite the purpose of the series, Öktem actually begins his narrative in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire when, in a desperate gambit to restore Ottoman power, the empire underwent a series of reforms that included bringing in European instructors to teach in military academies. As the empire broke up, Turkey was flooded by Muslim refugees from the Balkans, invaded by Greece, and targeted for colonization by European powers. At about the same time, the Ottoman Committee for Union and Progress conducted a genocide against the Armenians in eastern Anatolia. In the early 1920s at the height of the Greek invasion of Anatolia, a new state formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire when the leaders of the army, including one Mustafa Kemal, declared that the Sultan had no authority and formed their own de facto government. After re-securing territorial integrity, the military created a new Turkish Republic, abolished the Caliphate and, by totalitarian means, ushered in secular, national, “modernity.” During this period (1920-46) there came into being what Öktem refers to as “the guardian state” in Turkey, a coalition of bureaucrats, military commanders, and the judiciary that exists outside the influence of the elected officials.

Democratization of Turkey began in 1946 when, for the first time, candidates from multiple parties were allowed to stand for office. It was exceptional when the military-endorsed candidate won the election, which led to the primary tension in Öktem’s narrative: the authority and influence of the elected officials and the ability–and willingness–of the military to stage coups and to rewrite the constitution when they felt their position threatened. Öktem also reveals the military brutality, torture, killings, and propensity for staging communal violence in order to justify seizing power. Would that the situation be so simple, though. Öktem interweaves the Turkish claims to being a military nation, ethnic violence against and oppression of the Alevis and the Kurds, the latent and increasing Islamism, membership in the NATO alliance, attempts to join the European community, and the ruthless economic development programs. And all this before he gets to the year 1989.

Öktem convincingly argues that the Turkey of the past decade is not the same country as the Turkey of the 20th century. Turkey’s economy is more stable than it was in the 1990s, it has undergone a resurgence in both exports and tourism, and, Gezi park notwithstanding, has not had the same level of violence–sectarian or political–as it had in past decades. While the power of the Turkish military is waning, the deep state actors have not disappeared and the same underlying tensions between the illusion of a secular heritage and (moderate) political-Islam, Kurd-Turk, Muslim Turkey-Christian Europe still exist. The Arab Spring has since changed the political climate of the Middle East and made some of Öktem’s statements about Turkey’s position in the region obsolete, particularly with respect to Syria, but the basic threads spun out remain intact.

The one main complaint I can voice about Angry Nation, and one I had at several points, is that individuals from among the deep state actors, unless they end up also becoming public figures, appear in the narrative as the Wizard of Oz, only somewhat more sinister. This is likely by design. Öktem shows the genesis of these forces in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, but, almost a century later, the impression is that they remain a vague, menacing, and unchanging entity. And yet he indicates that there was a slow process of liberalization and a gradual loss of control over the bureaucracy and judiciary by the military. The narrative in Angry Nation is plenty complicated without broaching those institutions per se, but it sometimes seemed as though Öktem set them up as the boogey-man government in a dystopia. Not that that characterization is wholly unwarranted.

Angry Nation is a political history of Turkey designed to show the underlying tensions extant since the creation of the country and how those tensions shaped Turkey since the end of the Cold War. Öktem argues that these underlying issues, including the authoritarian nature of the state, have created a nation seething with discontent. He suggests that there are three main potential futures for Turkey: resurgence of the guardian state, replacement of the guardian state with the tutelage of Islam, or the development of a legitimate liberal state. Two years later, all these possibilities still exist. But in the wake of the Gezi Park protests, sparked by the Erdogan government’s plans to tear down a park and replace it with a shopping mall, where police used riot gear and tear gas to evict protesters and soldiers handed gas masks to the civilians, it seems that Öktem is correct about the frustration level of many Turkish people.