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Aslı Erdoğan: Kırmızı Pelerinli Kent (The City in Crimson Cloak)

Our heroine is Özgur. The name means free but she maintains that she is not free and does not like the name. She is around thirty and has been living in Rio de Janeiro (the most beautiful city in the world) for the past two years. It is not going well.

When she arrived, she knew only her professor and went straight to his house. She was not made welcome but, eventually, he took pity on her. He rents her a flat, but she considers the rent too high, there is no air conditioning (the temperature during most of this book hovers around 40° C (=(104° F)), and he has lots of annoying rules. She did have a job at a university but was fired. We do not know why. She had then tried to get a job teaching English but as she was neither English mother-tongue nor looked dynamic enough, none of the main teaching institutes would give her a job, preferring US students. She had managed to find some private students but, all too often,they disappeared without paying and some of the male ones expected other services as well.

She is now broke, depressed, with various health issues caused by the heat and humidity, and lonely. Most of her foreign friends left as they did not like living in Rio, while her Brazilian friends tended to be very fickle. She had had Brazilian boyfriends but none had lasted, disappearing without explanation or apology.

Above all, however, she hates Rio. All adventures in Brazil have a bloody ending, since the 16th century these savage lands have got the better of every voyager, harum scarum, gold hunter and daringly mad-hearted soul to set foot upon them. As for Rio she adds This is a city a third of whose population lives on the verge of starvation, a city up to its ears in crime, a city which grows fat from its trade in cheap mulatto flesh, cocaine and arms…A place of wholesale murder; reckless executions and meningitis and AIDS epidemics. Throughout the book, she will give us similar diatribes about the horrors of Rio and its people.

So why does she stay? That is a question that bothers her mother, who phones, though less regularly than she used to do, asking why her daughter does not return home to Turkey, where she would be happier. Özgur has only one answer. She is writing a book, a novel called The City in Crimson Cloak. She is determined that she cannot leave till she has, as she says, written Rio.

We follow Özgur during one particularly bad day for her. She is broke, she is hot, she lonely, she is depressed, she is miserable. Indeed, we get a kind of city novel – the book has been compared to Ulysses, in that it allegedly does for Rio what Ulysses did for Dublin, which is not true but, nevertheless, like Bloom, she wanders round the city, seeing its denizens and the places where tourists do not go.

While we are reading this novel, we are also reading Özgur’s The City in Crimson Cloak. The heroine of Özgur’s The City in Crimson Cloak is called simply Ö. While Özgur admits that Ö is based on her, there are differences, not least of which are her authorial changes to her own life to make Ö’s life more novelistic. At times, we get Özgur’s take on events and then Ö’s. Apart from some changes in what happened, the main difference is that Özgur’s take is more realistic, Ö’s more poetical. In one episode, for example, Ö is likened to Eurydice, going down to hell and trying to return.

Both women however point out the problems with Rio, from the twenty murders a day, the continual danger from muggings, murder, rape, robbery and being caught in the crossfire of fights between gangs. Özgur has been mugged more than once and caught in gang crossfire more than once. She was even kidnapped by the police who wanted a thousand dollars ransom to release her. She did not have the money and, eventually, they let her go. She has seen four dead bodies just lying in the street since she has been there. As she tells her mother, This city’s killing me, every day, every minute, every opportunity, in every way, it’s killing me…I’m surrounded, besieged, outside and in.

The process of destruction had begun, like everything in this city, at a dizzying speed; before she knew it, she had arrived at the point of no return. The wild seeds of doom had suddenly taken root in her soul. This is in Ö’s book and is said after the third week. By the time of this book, some two years later, she knows that there is no way out.

If you were ever thinking of going to Rio de Janeiro, reading this book will put you off for life. It paints an incredibly grim picture of a city that resembles one of the circles of Dante’s hell. Aslı Erdoğan herself spent some two years in Rio, though she did manage to get home safely. She tells an excellent story of a woman caught up in something that she does not seem able to escape from. Apart, presumably, from lack of money to buy a plane ticket (which is not mentioned), her only reason for staying seems to be her blind determination to write Rio, to finish her book. It will not be a good decision.

Publishing history

First published by Adam in 1998
First published in English by Soft Skull Press in 2007
Translated by Amy Spangler