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Oğuz Atay: Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected)

This book was first published in Turkish in two volumes in 1971-72, the publisher, apparently unable to afford to publish it all in one go (the later one volume edition was 724 pages). Not surprisingly, it disappeared without trace. It was a different story when it was republished in one volume, as it had a considerable success. It influenced, for example, the young Orhan Pamuk. It was considered untranslatable and then it was translated first into Dutch (in 2011 as Het leven in stukken) and then into German (in 2016 as Die Haltlosen ).

It finally appeared in English in 2017, published by a publisher, Olric Press (Olric is a character imagined by one of the characters in the book) created for this book and published in a very limited edition of 200 copies at £50 each. It very soon went out of print, though Olric Press stated that they hope that eventually a commercial publisher will dare to undertake it. In the meantime, copies are very hard to obtain. The cheapest at the time of writing is €905.75 (plus postage).

The story starts with Turgut Özben, a Turkish engineer. He has sent a copy of the manuscript to the unnamed narrator, saying it should be published, in which he recounts the story of his dear friend, Selim Işık (not to be confused with the real Selim Işık, who plays for a Turkish thrash metal band!) Selim Işık had, apparently, committed suicide and Turgut wants to find out why. The book is essentially Turgut’s attempts to find about about Selim’s life and what might have driven him to kill himself. Essentially, he tracks down various people who knew Selim and who can fill in the gaps.

Turgut was, he thought, good friends with Selim. They met at university, where both were studying engineering. In fact, he meets him and Kenan, another engineer, whom he becomes friendly with, with the two playing a numbers game instead of listening to the lecture. As in any good modernist novel, game-playing will play a role in this book.

We gradually learn about Turgut. He is married to Nermin and they have two daughters. He is fascinated by the use of old words of Arabic and Persian origin in Turkish, many of which have been rejected in modern Turkish, following the Atatürk reforms. (Those who try to remove them from modern Turkish are later mocked in the novel.)

We also follow his relationship with Selim. They seem to be good friends and do indeed play games. For example, Selim invents an imaginary biography for Turgut. One of the issues they discuss is something that is key to this novel, namely the history of Turkey and, in particular, the Turkish contribution to the modern world. They claim, for example that it was a Turk who invented photography.

Turgut gradually discovers, to his surprise, that Selim seemingly had a lot of close friends of whose existence Turgut was completely unaware. Much of the book involves tracking down these friends and speaking to them. Inevitably, they all have their own quirks and their own special relationship with Selim.

The first is Süleyman Kargı. He gives the first clue to Selim’s suicide, saying that Selim could not bear to be alone. Indeed, there are plenty of things he does not like, including horses, lightning, sea and false teeth. Selim had written a collection of strange songs, mixing in Turkish, English and French. Selim hoped that these had been destroyed but Süleyman had kept them and we are given them. They are often about the Turks’ place in history and about pre-urban history. Süleyman also mentions the Bilig-Tenuz, an ancient encyclopedia written on stones which had been discovered in 1917 and dates from 2014 years ago.

One entry is key to the book. This is the entry for The Disconnected:

The Disconnected (Disconnectus erectus) : A clumsy and easily frightened animal. Some can even be the size of a human being. In fact, at first glance, they even look like humans. The grip of his claws is weak. He is incapable of climbing hills, and comes down a slope by sliding (frequently falling as he does so). He has almost no hair on his body; he has large eyes but weak sight, which is why he cannot see danger from a distance. The males moan pitifully when left alone.

The entry goes onto to show that they are not communal, have haphazard feeding habits, cannot protect themselves, lose fights, are forbidden to hunt but still do, and are religious. Given that Selim more than once refers to himself as one of The Disconnected , it is clear that, while the Disconnected are a seemingly different species, they are, of course, humans who do not fit in, as is apparently the case with Selim.

Süleyman goes on to give us a detailed exegesis of Selim’s songs, most of which is thoroughly playful. For example we learn about the great philosopher Hegel. No, not that one but another one, a butcher who is called Hegel and decides that, as his name is the same as the great philosopher, he should be a philosopher, too. It does not work out well. We also learn about the great Ziya Özdevrimsel, who lives in Childharoldeshire, Ohio and who is responsible for trafic light reforms. His story does not work out well, either.

Turgut meets other people. There is Melin the violnist, a somewhat rough and ready man who says that Selim works for the Secret Service and that maybe he is not dead but in a country with poor communications. Turgut drags him round the brothels.

He goes to Selim’s house and meets his mother who clearly does not understand. He looks through all the books and items in Selim’s room, looking for…what? he does not know. He does read his diary, which gives him some clue as to how unhappy Selim was.

Selim is a big reader – Turgut is not – and it is Esat who introduces us to some of his reading from Oscar Wilde to the Russian classics. Selim firmly believed literature consisted of paradoxes. In fact, there are numerous references to various writers and books, including Don Quixote, Kafka, Dickens, Dostoesvky, Tolstoy, Balzac,Ibsen, Istrati, Wilde, Gorky, Gide and Rilke. Selim does despise Balzac, whom he considers a second-rate writer. As Esat’s sister read Balzac, he made the assumption that women did not undersand what they read but has to change his views when a woman introduces him to Gorky, whom he really enjoys.

However, it is not as simple as that. He starts reading only the introductions to books, to learn of the early years of writers. He writes stories while Esat watches. I shall write introductions for myself. I shall write introductions for Selim Işık, the author of novels that don’t exist, he says. There are many Selims, he says, he adds.

And then there is love. According to the UN Turkey is highly undeveloped in matters of love, Turgut comments. Selim is a lonely man and is not married. However, he was attracted to Zeliha, whom Medin had been having an affair with. It did not work out well. Later in the book Turgut discovers that there was someone in his life: Günseli Ediz. Turgut contacts her but he learns that that relationship did not turn out well, either.

Selim wants to compile an Encyclopaedia of the Turkish Disconnected. These are, for example, stories of ordinary people who fail, such as a publisher who published two books, which did not do well, and is sued over one. I understood them, he says. We get quite a few samples of people who have failed, including Süleyman Kargı and the last one, himself.

Turgut thinks of writing a novel about Selim, a novel of the sighs of a tortured soul but in the end he too disappears.

This has been called the Turkish Ulysses. Both are long (this one is over 700 pages). Both are distinctly modernist. Both use game-playing to a certain degree, though this one far more than Ulysses. Both are key novels in the literary history of their respective countries and both influenced many later writers. However, there, I think, the similarity ends. The hero of Ulysses is Dublin. While Istanbul does appear in this novel, it does not have anything like the role of Dublin in Ulysses or, indeed, the role it has in the work of Orhan Pamuk.

If I had to sum up this book, it would be the attempt by one man to build a portrait of another man (nominally to explain his suicide) by getting different views from various people who knew him in different ways. It is, of course, far more complicated than that as shown by the disconnected theme – of someone not fitting in with his society, his culture and his peers and how he copes or, in the case of Selim and, perhaps, later, Turgut, how he does not cope. How autobiographical this is, I am not competent to judge, though it may well be that Atay considered himself a misjudged genius, a prophet without honour in his own country.

What is clear is that this book fully deserves the reputation it has as a modern masterpiece and had it originally been written in English, French, German or even Russian it would certainly be far better known and would have been published by a major publisher, instead of only 200 copies being published and the book essentially out of reach of most readers.

Publishing history

First published by Sinan Yayinlaris in 1971-72
First published in English by Olric in 2017
Translated by Sevin Seydi