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İhsan Oktay Anar: Puslu Kıtalar Atlası [The Atlas of Misty Continents]
As you can see below, this novel has been translated into French, German and Korean, but not English, which is somewhat surprising, as this novel is one of those romps through history, with a host of colourful characters, a wildly historically inaccurate scenario, lots of improbabilities and lots of fantasy/magic realism.
The book is set in the late seventeenth century, when the Ottoman Empire was pushing into Europe, culminating in the failed Siege of Vienna. The geopolitical situation, however, does not really concern our characters. Indeed, the first person we meet is a pirate. He is İhsan the Arab. Every character we meet has a colourful story behind him, with Anar giving full rein to his inventiveness in each case. The characters are not always human – the characters with a colourful story include a bear, a monkey and a book.
İhsan is covered in tattoos and scars and has just returned from an expedition which did not go quite as well as he hoped, primarily because of Alibaz, a slave he captured. Alibaz does not behave as other slaves. He ran riot on the ship, damaged the key cannon, which meant they had to flee from another ship and only just made it and stole large amounts of the booty they captured. İhsan is now taking Alibaz to his nephew and great-nephew.
İhsan’s nephew is called… İhsan. You may have noted that this is also the name of the author. The nephew İhsan is called Uzun İhsan, which translates as İhsan the Long. This character appears in several of Anar’s books and is based on the author himself, who is six feet four inches tall. İhsan’s son is Bünyamin and it is he who has been dreaming of his great-uncle’s return and he who greets him when he arrives with Alibaz, not least because his father is fast asleep.
İhsan the Long is an enigmatic character. He is creating a mappa mundi. However, as he is inherently lazy, he does not wish to travel the world to do so. He has found a much simpler way to see the world – he dreams it. His soul goes travelling while his body stays in bed. He has got a sleeping draught, which soon sends him to sleep and then he dreams of the various parts of the world. When his uncle arrives, he is dreaming and is uncle and son are both involved in the dream.
As mentioned we follow the colourful stories of several characters, often wondering how they fit into the story, though they eventually do. İhsan the Pirate is looking for Kubelik, a Venetian alcoholic. He is frequently punished for his drinking (by being beaten on the soles of his feet, so that he now limps). By a complex procedure, explained in full, he becomes interested in anatomy and is writing an Atlas of Anatomy, based on his own (often illegal) experiments. He had sold İhsan the Pirate a plaster which would protect him from arrows and bullets and, when he hears İhsan is looking for him, he fears the worst.
Kubelik manages to hide out for a while but he is soon caught. However, the news is good. İhsan and his shipmates had attacked a ship. A sailor on the ship had shot him, hitting him in the chest. Fortunately, he has just stolen a book, which was secreted in his jacket and the bullet hit the book, sparing İhsan. İhsan now wants Kuelik to translate it for him. In a complex story, we follow the book’s journey through history, till it reaches our author, İhsan Oktay Anar, via Lawrence of Arabia!
Much of the focus is on Bünyamin. He has doubts about his father. What is the source of his income? And is he really his father, as he seems too young? Bünyamin follows his father but finds no solution. He decides to use his father’s technique of sleeping and takes some of the sleeping draught but takes too much. His dream sees him flying. He sees his father finding him – dead. He sees the funeral arrangements and his burial in the cemetery. When he awakes, which he does, he is, indeed, buried but does manage to get out.
Because of his experience of being underground, Bünyamin is recruited by the sappers and he and the other sappers set off for Bulgaria. We follow their colourful adventures as they besiege a town and try to dig underneath it. It turns out that they are there for one reason, to get a Turkish spy out which, with difficulty, they do. He is, however, injured while fleeing and he passes a strange black coin to Bünyamin, telling him to make sure that the Efendi gets it. Bünyamin is badly injured and disfigured so everyone thinks he is dead or has fled. As a result, he keeps the coin.
This is, perhaps, where the book really gets going, in the sense that the main plot develops and it gets even more complicated and fantastical than it had been up to now. Bünyamin gets home to find his house has been destroyed and his father arrested and tortured. We now follow a story with a man who had been a clever burglar, disguising himself as a woman to gain entrance to rich houses. He ends up as the King of the Beggars, nicknamed Pork Eater. We also meet the head of the spy organisation, who has a magic mirror which gives dire warnings of a forthcoming apocalypse. Alibaz sets up a gang of children, while İhsan the Long, now without eyes, ears or a nose as as result of his torture, is able to imagine anything he wants. Bünyamin gets involved with all of these, as well as frequently consulting his father’s Atlas, like the old-time sortes, picking out a phrase at random and following what it says.
It is all great fun, entirely improbable, very colourful and complicated. Anar knows how to tell a fantastical tale which, just when you think you have an idea of what is going on and the role of the various characters, everything changes or one of the characters assumes another role or a character you had forgotten suddenly reappears. It is only a pity that it is not available in English.
First published by Iletişim Yayinlari in 1995
No English translation
First published in French as Atlas des continents brumeux by Actes Sud in 2001
Translated by Ferda Fidan
First published in German as Der Atlas unsichtbarer Kontinente by Ammann, Zurich in 2004
Translated by Ute Birgi-Knellessen
Also available in Korean