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Hakan Günday: Az (The Few)

Every so often I read a novel which turns out to be irredeemably grim. I normally persevere, as the author either has a point to make or s/he is clearly the sort of person who sees only the dark side of life. As I mentioned in the author page, Hakan Günday was very much influenced by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, one of the grimmest twentieth century authors you are likely to read. This book almost makes Céline look cheerful. Günday has a point. He is pointing out the horrendous treatment women, whose families belong to Turkish sects receive at the hands of the men, though there is much more violence than that in this book.

Our heroine is Derdâ. Her father disappeared four days after he realised he had got Derdâ’s mother pregnant. He never reappeared. Derdâ’s mother was bitterly resentful of Derdâ, particularly as she had to spend her life cleaning when all she wanted was an easy life. When Derdâ was old enough, her mother sent her to a state boarding school. When we first meet her, she is eleven years old and at this school. The book starts in a way it means to go one. Derdâ is indirectly responsible for the death of a six-year old girl and the failed suicide of one of her teachers.

The death is caused by the fact that Derdâ insisted the six-year old take the top bunk – she had been told to give the child the bottom bunk. The child fell out and was killed. The roads were blocked with snow, so the director tells Yeşim, the teacher, to put the body in the meat refrigerator. Yeşim is so upset by the image of the body in the fridge and, exacerbated by her hatred of the job and the fact that the director had previously raped her, that she loses her temper, throwing whatever came to hand at the director and then stabbing herself. There would be no more problems if she died. But unfortunately, she survived.

Note the use of the word unfortunately. For many of the women in this book, death would be a relief.

Derdâ’s mother is summoned and she says she will take Derdâ out of school for a month. Derdâ enjoys studying – many girls did not get the opportunity to to study at all. After all, as one character says Who would want a girl who’s been to school? Poor girl, she’s no good anymore!

We soon learn, though Derdâ does not, that her mother plans to sell her into marriage to make her own life easier. Remember Derdâ is only eleven and, as we know, has not yet menstruated. Who wouldn’t want an innocent eleven-year-old girl? her mother thinks.

Mother and daughter go off to Kurudere: The broken one. The good-for-nothing one. A place good for the carcasses of dead ants and nothing else. Where Sheik Gazi didn’t even bother to stop by. A very dry stream. So dry that it wasn’t really there. Maybe it never had been. The town is part of the Aleyzam tribe. The Aleyzam tribe was a flock of men that had worked as government-sponsored militia for five years before flipping sides and becoming terrorists fighting against the government, choosing sides according to the political climate at the time. It is also part of the Hikmet Tariqat sect.

When Derdâ learns that she is not going back to school, she tries to escape. She is then chained up, till she meets her future husband, Bezir. Bezir is a violent man who has tried to control his violence with kick boxing. It has not worked. Derdâ is given a fake father and hurriedly married to Bezir. She then gets a UK visa and just as quickly sent off to England with Bezir, where the sect has a block of flats in Finsbury Park – Finsbury Park, where property prices plummeted with the rise of Muslim immigrants, where the English became poorer and increasingly racist every day and Muslims got richer and richer, slowly taking over the neighbourhood.

In England, she lives in a flat with Bezir. The first night, he brutally rapes her again and again, leaving her bloodied and bruised. This treatment will continue. When he is not there, she is guarded by other women. She is never allowed out of the flat. She is deemed a failure as a wife, as she fails to produce a son. After five years of this, she has had enough and plans her escape. She is well aware that there is a non-Turkish tenant in a neighbouring flat as she has seen him briefly, though, of course, he has only seen her wearing her chador. She does not speak English but draws pictures of Bezir (man) beating a woman (her), with blood on her. She hopes, by showing this to the tenant, he will realise what is happening. However, the tenant, Stanley, misunderstands and thinks that she is offering her services as a sadist. He is a masochist and he is really turned on by being beaten by a woman in a chador. She is so successful at this, including with a friend of Stanley and making films with them, that she manages to make some money.

We follow her somewhat liberated life in London after she escapes. I say somewhat liberated as she becomes a heroin junkie, a porn film star and involved with a series of drug dealers and is even monitored by MI5, though she also graduates from Edinburgh University, doing her thesis on Donatien Alphonse François’s influence on English literature. We know Donatien Alphonse François better as the Marquis de Sade.

While it is certainly common for characters in a novel to accidentally bump into other characters from their past in strange places, this novel almost makes a fetish of it. The first person she meets after her escape from Bezir, she has not only met before but has another, separate connection with him. This happens several times with other characters and will also happen in the second part of the novel.

The other mildly jarring feature is that virtually every person she has unpleasant dealings with (mainly, though not exclusively men) ends up being punished for it by the author. In some cases, this involves a violent death (the death rate in this book is alarming), while in other cases, the punishment may be reduced but is still there.

But we are only half way through the book at this stage and we now jump back in time to… Derdâ. No, not that Derdâ but another one, a boy this time, the same age as the female Derdâ and a boy she very briefly meets early in the book, though we did not know his name at the time. We now follow his story. He is eleven years old when we meet him, as his female counterpart was. He earns money by providing water for the plants of mourners at the cemetery. His father was in prson and his mother dies soon after we meet him. He does not want to go to the orphanage, about which he has heard horrific tales from other boys who also provide water to mourners in the cemetery, so he finds a way to make sure no-one knows of her death and buries her in a tomb in the cemetery.

He goes every day to the tomb where he has buried his mother, in order to pray. He cannot read so he does not know whose tomb it is but he does recognise the letters of the person’s name. As he grows up, he needs other employment and, fortunately, he has a friend who helps him get a job with a pirate publisher. This publisher publishes both banned editions but also pirated editions. It is Derdâ’s job to go with the van driver and deliver boxes of books to the retailers, often book stands in the street. One day, one of the booksellers, Saruhan, gives him a long book to read, saying he is welcome to have it as it does not sell well. Derdâ has always kept his illiteracy secret but he recognises the name on the book cover, as it is the same as the name on the tomb where he has buried his mother.

He admits to Saruhan that he cannot read and Saruhan agrees – for a fee – to teach him. He learns very quickly that the name on the book cover is Oğuz Atay and the book he has been given is Tutunamayanlar, which has been translated into English as The Disconnected, one of the great modern Turkish novels.

He learns to read from Saruhan with only one aim – to read Tutunamayanlar. Bear in mind that this is rather the equivalent of an English speaker learning to read, in order to read Ulysses. Nevertheless, he learns to read and Tutunamayanlar is the first book he reads. He does not fully understand it but is very impressed, and soon acquires and reads other books by Atay as well as a biography of Atay. he also learns from Saruhan and the biography that Atay died young (aged forty-three), that he was ignored by critics in his lifetime and (contrary to the prevailing view that he died of a brain tumour), he was hounded to death by the critics and other writers.

Derdâ is determined that Atay should get the fame he deserves and starts spraying graffiti of a giant O with an A inside, as a tribute to Atay. However, Günday intends to carry on the way he started and things get violent, very violent, with more dead and more people scarred, both mentally and physically, including Derdâ’s father, who reappears.

Not surprisingly, we find there is a connection between this Derdâ, the other Derdâ and Atay. Perhaps more surprisingly, the book has a happy ending, despite or, perhaps,because of the body toll.

It is difficult to know what to make of this book. The first part is unremittingly grim. The male Derdâ does not have as hard a time as his female counterpart and, when he does he brings it on himself. The rather surprising introduction of Oğuz Atay certainly changes things. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this book because of the brutality suffered by the female Derdâ (I have omitted quite a bit in this review) and, indeed, many of the other characters, even if some of them fully deserve it, but I can say that the book is very original and clever and that it certainly follows in the footsteps of Günday’s master, Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

Publishing history

First published by Doğan Kitap in 2011
First published in English by Arcade in 2018
Translated by Alexander Dawe