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Burhan Sönmez: Masumlar (Sins & Innocents)

Burhan Sönmez was assaulted by the police in 1996 and badly injured. He went to the UK, specifically to Cambridge, to recuperate and keep away from Turkey. This novel is based on his experiences in Cambridge.

The story has two alternating parts. The first part is about his life in Cambridge, while the second is set in Turkey and tells stories about his family and the photographer, Tatar, through whose eyes we follow various events. Most of the stories are very gloomy indeed.

He lives on his own in Cambridge studying and, while somewhat lonely, seems to easily make friends. We start with Brani Tawo – our hero’s name, though we only learn it later in the book – taking a photo of his uncle Hatip and Tatar to a photography shop in Cambridge. As he points out, Tatar is holding his camera, so someone else must have taken the photo with another camera. Brani goes to the shop to see if he can still get hold of the same camera Tatar is holding. As with many of the events in this book, there is a story behind why he is trying to get hold of the same camera.

Feruzeh, an Iranian woman is working part-time while doing a Ph. D. in English literature (on the English World War I poets). Brani meets her and much of the book is about their relationship. She left Iran with her mother when she was seven and has not been back since. Their romance, which is as much intellectual as sexual, slowly develops. Inevitably, they both deal with the issue of exile and how to cope with living in a foreign country and not being able to go back to one’s own country. However, Feruzeh will suddenly go back to Iran later in the book, in connection with her twin sister.

Brani gets to know Feruzeh’s mother, with whom he gets on very well and who lives with Feruzeh, as well as some of her friends. Both together and separately they enjoy the intellectual life of Cambridge, including a ceremony for Rupert Brooke and visiting the grave of Wittgenstein, where Brani meets and comforts a woman whose husband has just left her the day before.

They also attend a ceremony relating to Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, who bought his freedom, married and lived in Cambridge. His situation is related to theirs, in that he is in a foreign country and cannot easily return to his (he was nearly taken back into slavery after gaining his freedom there).

You said that although he was a slave abducted from Africa Olaudah managed to forge his own destiny.”
“He couldn’t go back to Africa but he created his own Africa.”

Brani meets other exiles as well. For example, he meets an Irishman who comments This place would be all right if it wasn’t for the damn English.

While their love affair is very well told and,from our perspective, is mainly seen from an intellectual rather than romantic or sexual point of view, events in Turkey are more interesting. Tatar wanders round the country taking photos. (Again, there is a story as to why he does, which we only learn later). We follow the story of Brani’s Uncle Hatip (who is not his real uncle, as we learn later) and his grandmother, Kewê (who is not his real grandmother, as we learn later). Both have fairly gruesome back stories, particularly Kewê. We also follow the story of the Claw-Faced Woman, why she is called that and of her twin daughters who are always disappearing and up to no good. Again, the Claw-Faced Woman has a fairly grim back story. We start with Ferman who loves Asya, gets into a feud with her brothers and for whom everything, inevitably, goes very wrong. We learn how Brani’s father was struck by lighting, the sad story of Little Mehmet and about the sergeant from Istanbul, Tatar’s brother, who clearly suffered from what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder. We even learn about a historical character, Deniz Gezmiş, whose fate was as grim as that of the other characters in this part of the novel.

Sönmez tells the stories very well and all the various characters that appear gradually link up, so we get a coherent story of Brani’s background and the background of his family and village. While this part of the book paints a grim picture, he is somewhat more positive in Cambridge. This is, to a great extent, because he meets Feruzeh. He does have his troubles – he cannot sleep, for example, with the insomnia caused by what happened to him with the police in Turkey. He does have money troubles – he works part-time as an a Turkish interpreter – but that does not bother him too much. However, when Feruzeh heads off to Iran, the gloom descends.

On his way to an interpreting job in Norwich, after she has left, he comments The passengers on the early morning train still bore the marks of the previous day. They weren’t a hospital worker, a university student, a company manager, but unhappy people all wanting to forget the miserable events of the day before.

Yet despite the gloom or, perhaps, in part because of it, the story works very well firstly because Sönmez tells a first-class story and we never get bored and also because the characters in both parts of the book are thoroughly engaging. There is no bad sex in fiction style sex between Brani and Feruzeh, indeed virtually no sex, at least as far as we see and there are fascinating discussions between them and with their friends. The Turkish characters are almost all colourful in various ways and their lives seem full of action, albeit all too often unpleasant action. Story-telling is clearly alive and well in Turkey.

Publishing history

First published by Iletișim in 2011
First published in English by Garnet Publishing in 2014
Translated by Ümit Hussein