Leylâ Erbil: Tuhaf Bir Kadın (A Strange Woman)
The book is divided in four parts. The first part is called Daughter and is set in Istanbul in 1950-52 and is narrated by a nineteen year old woman who, we only learn in the second part, is called Nermin (which, incidentally, is the name of the translator). Turkey in the early 1950s was, like most places, not a place to be a feminist but Nermin is determined to be an independent woman. She is studying at university.
Like the author, Nermin is a would-be poet and has written some poetry. When she shows her poetry to a male poet, he is utterly patronising and tells her that she is too young to be a poet. She will be frequently patronised throughout this book.
Though she is not averse to a romantic relationship and even sex, though she insists she is still a virgin, she also wants to have relationship with men as friends and equals. However, throughout this chapter, many of the men she is in contact with are interested only in a sexual relationship. Whenever I’ve tried to discuss poetry or politics, to start a real friendship with them, they’ve been teasing or mocking, and turned either soppy or aggressive…Why can’t they see me as a friend, a sister?
During this period there was a strong anti-communist trend and communists (meaning anyone with left-wing views) was liable to have problems with the authorities. Nermin described going to a bar with a friend: We met: an actor just out of prison; a poet just out of prison; an architect just out of prison; a new short story writer and a new journalist who haven’t been to prison yet. A man she is really interested in (as a friend), Haluk, is imprisoned during this book and she visits him. She herself will be arrested and hit by the police.
Her main enemy, however, is Nuriye, her mother. Her mother is very old-fashioned and would be horrified if she knew of Nermin’s consumption of alcohol and her friendship with various young men. She is, according to Nermin, a tyrant. For example, when she finds Nermin reading Crime and Punishment, she burns the book and strikes her daughter.
I don’t trust you one bit, your eyes are deceitful, you’re capable of anything, anything. You have no character. You lead a double life. I don’t know what, but I can sense that you’re keeping something from us, she says to her daughter.
The second part is called The Father and tells the story of her father. Hasan. In the previous section, he had lost his job to the chagrin of his wife, Nuriye. Now, he is lying on his bed, apparently very ill and possibly dying. He seems to be semi-conscious and delirious. While his wife, daughter and son-in-law are discussing his fate, all he wants is to be left in peace to die at home.
While lying there, he reminisces. We follow his life, from his move to Istanbul, the various odd jobs he carried out and, in particular, thanks to his older brother, a sea captain, his job as a stoker and later chief engineer. He has had a colourful life at sea including, in particular, when he was in the Turkish navy, being captured by the Greeks and kept in prison for two years and also rescuing fifty-three people from his ship when it was sinking, though he feels very guilty about the fifty-fourth.
He seems to have more respect for his daughter and her independence than his wife does, though he very much objects to her first choice as husband, but has reluctantly accepted the current one. He clearly has strong left-wing views as he has portraits of Lenin and Castro in the sitting room (which are destroyed at his funeral).
As well as his ruminations on his career, he also thinks about the Turkish political situation and the history of Turkey, with something of an obsession with Mustafa Subhi and his unsolved murder.
The third and shortest part is called Mother and is narrated by Nermin and not by her mother and recounts the events at Hasan’s funeral where Nuriye is completely out of control.
The final part is called The Woman, the woman, of course being Nermin. She is now in her forties and has decided she needs to be closer to the people she has been struggling to help, so she and her husband move to a poor area, where there are immigrants, many people are illiterate and most are very poor. It does not work out. Am I on the right road? she asks herself. The answer is clearly No.
Erbil gives us a wonderful, feminist account of life of a woman in the middle of the last century, a woman who struggles to move away from the traditional role of women at that time, i.e. wife and mother. She compares herself to other women. There is her mother who clearly tries hard to be a good Muslim, a good wife and a good mother. Clearly she fails, at least as far as her husband and daughter are concerned. There is her friend Meral who is very close to Nermin when they are younger and as rebellious as Nermin but who changes, once she is married, into the traditional religious, conservative Turkish woman.
Erbil, however, is not writing a feminist tract. Clearly, most of the men (though not all) in the first part of the book are far from being feminist, seeing women of their own age mainly from a sexual point of view rather than treating them as intellectual equals (a view, of course, not unique to Turkish young men). Equally, the women who do conform, such as Meral and her mother, do not come out well. However, Nermin herself does not always behave well, is ambiguous as regards sex and, in the final part, takes a patronising point of view towards the poor and fails spectacularly, e.g when looking after a baby.
Erbil has given us a complex but fascinating account of the trial and tribulations of a woman who wishes to be independent, to be herself, while helping others, in a country where both feminism and left-wing political views are, at best, looked down on and often very much opposed, and not just by the ruling classes. Deep Vellum and Nermin Menemencioğlu have given us a very worthwhile book by an author that, I suspect, most of us had not heard of but who clearly needed to be discovered by English-speaking readers.
First published by Habora Kitabevi in 1971
First published in English by Deep Vellum in 2020
Translated by Nermin Menemencioğlu