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Ahmet Altan: Son Oyun (Endgame)

Our unnamed hero is, by profession a novelist. At the start of the novel, he tells us that he has just killed someone. He gives no details. I remembered it like a dream. But I couldn’t remember much. We then learn the back story that led to this killing.

He decided to go a fairly remote seaside town to write his novel. On the flight to the small town, he meets a woman, Zuhal. She seems to be afraid, even though she tells him that she herself is learning to pilot a plane. I knew my life would never be the same. It’s hard to explain, how that laugh and then the way she held my arm seconds later was the beginning of it all.

In the town, he finds a place to rent, through the local café owner, Remzi, with whom he remains on good terms. He continues to see Zuhal and she reads his books. However,he gradually finds out that this attractive mountainside, seaside town is not what it seems. There are a few things going on.

The first is gangsters. It seems that there are two gangs in town. One day, while our hero is sitting having his morning coffee at Remzi’s café . He notices a man sitting at an adjacent table, whom he had never seen before. A minibus pulls up alongside the café. A man gets out, comes into the cafe, fires two shots at the sitting man, killing him, and then walks out. No-one reacts. The police arrive – the police chief is in his big Mercedes – and statements are taken but it is clear that no-one will be caught for this crime, apparently a crime that is not unusual in the town. One gang member killed by the member of another gang.

The second is Mustafa Gürz. Mustafa is the mayor of the town and rules the town with a rod of iron. He (and his friends) court our narrator, not least because they assume a writer can be useful. Indeed, he is occasionally asked to write statements and announcements. More particularly, Mustafa is the former lover of Zuhal. She apparently still loves him, even though their affair is over.

The third is Zuhal. Despite Mustafa, the narrator and Zuhal start an affair, even though (or perhaps because) like any good literary heroine, she remains somewhat enigmatic.

The fourth is the treasure. There is a church at the top of the hill in the town. Some people believe Christ was buried there. Others believe that there is treasure buried there. No-one has dared explore for the treasure, not least because it would offend too many people. Then, one day, Mustafa announces that the hill to the church is to be closed, allegedly because it is unsafe. Diggers appear. There is something of a ruction in the town and Mustafa backs off – for now.

Meanwhile, our hero is struggling with his novel, a novel about writing a novel. As well as seeing Zuhal, he is also seeing a local prostitute, Sümbül, who, as well as providing the usual services, also provides him with all the local gossip. One piece of gossip is that one gang wants to beat him up, to persuade him to leave town.

Gradually, things get worse – much worse. He witnesses another shooting. He makes his love life even more complicated than it was. The civil war in town really takes off. Meanwhile, we are waiting to discover who he shot, why, and the consequences of his action.

There are quite a few key characters in this book but there is one that really does play a key role in our narrator’s life, whom I have not mentioned, and that is God. Our narrator does not seem to be a particularly religious person, though does plan to get married in a mosque. Apart from that, he seems to keep away from mosques and imams. However, he does seem to have an ongoing relationship with God.

He frequently talks to God, almost as an equal. Many of his conversation are critical of God (the conversations are, of course, entirely one-sided). He accuses God of being a poor novelist. He divides God’s novel work into two – the first book is life, and the second book is death/the afterlife.

Like all novelists, you are unwittingly drawn to evil. This is why you have always defended the very opposite of what you have created Good, in your books, is only something talked about. While evil is victorious.

God, in his view, is obsessed with evil: There’s something deplorable in your need for evil, in how you resort to evil to move this novel along. You insist people should do good but place evil in their hearts.

He will continue to talk to God and blame God throughout the course of the book.

Is the unnamed town of the novel a microcosm of Turkey? Altan is a very political being and highly critical of modern Turkey and its leaders, so I think we can assume that part of what happens in the town is a reflection of contemporary Turkey. This includes the massive corruption, the over-reliance on violence to solve political problems and the ruthless search for and use of power for its own ends.

This is certainly an interesting work, with a fairly small idyllic seaside resort being turned into civil war zone, the criminal being identified at the beginning of the novel, while we have to wait to find out who the victim is, and his conversations with God. However, it did not entirely work for me.

Our hero is, frankly, not a very sympathetic character. He is arrogant. He has affairs with three different women (and considers a fourth) in the same small town. I was sleeping with the women of the town’s two most powerful and most dangerous men. It might be considered as dicing with danger or it might be considered as plain stupid or, more accurately, unlikely. The two most powerful and most dangerous men have spies everywhere and seem to know every time he blows his nose, yet somehow do not seem to know that he is sleeping with their partners. Yes, suspension of disbelief is key to reading any novel but this novel is a seemingly realist novel whose realism is not entirely convincing. In addition, the novel is perhaps too long. We get a lot of unnecessary texting between our hero and Zuhal, for example, as well as a lot of down time, when he seems to do nothing but ogle his cleaning lady. Despite this, the book was huge success in Turkey, not least, I suspect, because the Turks did see it, to a certain degree, as a microcosm of modern Turkey.

Publishing history

First published by Everest Yayınları in 2013
First published in English by Canongate in 2015
Translated by Alexander Dawe