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Oya Baydar: Kayıp Söz (The Lost Word)

Ömer Eren is a famous Turkish writer and, if we do not know that, he continually reminds us and various characters of this during the course of the book. However, as the title tells us, he has lost his word, i.e. he has writer’s block. We start with him in a coach station in Ankara, suddenly deciding to head East rather than return to Istanbul. One of his key traits is his close observation of things and people – critics have commented on this – and we see this straight away, when he sees a lady at the station with a colourful hat. He examines her in detail. She reminds him of his mother (whom he did not get on with).

A group of soldiers are setting off to go to military service and there is a certain amount of celebration. Guns are fired and suddenly a woman passenger is shot. Two men are seen running away but no-one stops them or identifies them. Ömer rushes to assist the woman and her husband and even accompanies them to hospital. The man is Kurdish, called Mahmut. Both Baydar and Ömer have been sympathetic to the plight of the Kurds. Indeed, that is one of the reasons why Ömer is heading East. He had been very political when younger and had spent time in jail, when his son was born.

While waiting at the hospital, he learns about Mahmut’s situation. He describes what he calls his parts: They are burnt villages, ambushed hamlets, mines, unsolved murders and codes of honour, and they are the mountains – especially the mountains. They are all death. We learn that they were not allowed to speak Kurdish at school. Indeed, there was no such language as Kurdish, they were told, and yet they were punished for using it. Initially, he went into to the mountains to join the Kurdish resistance. Then I saw and understood there is blood and tyranny in the mountains, too. There’s no future other than death. He and his wife, Zelal, had planned to get away with their child (she is pregnant) and try and live a normal life. But they learn that, though she will survive, the child will not. Should he go back to fighting or should they continue with their plan to escape to a big city, hide there and try to have a normal life?

We follow Mahmut and Zelal throughout the book, as Ömer tries to help them have a relatively normal life but, inevitably, their past and their background seem liable to catch up with them and prevent them from their normal life.

Ömer is married to Elif. Since she was a child, Elif had always wanted to be a scientist. Indeed, she did so well at school, that it was suggested that she could be the first Turkish female Nobel Prize winner. While that idea has long since been abandoned, she is still hopeful that she might win some prize. She is very focussed on her work and very much enjoys it, except for killing mice, which gets mentioned as much as Ömer’s mentioning of his being a successful author.

The couple have a son, Deniz. He was named after a former political colleague of Ömer, who was hanged, a legacy Deniz bitterly resents. Perhaps not surprisingly, his parents put a lot of pressure on him to be somebody. The initial aim was for him to be a scientist. I’m no Einstein and don’t intend to be! he had uttered.

Eventually, his father had pushed him into being a war photographer, sending him off to Iraq with a very expensive camera. He had done well but did not enjoy it. He met a young doctor working for Médecins Sans Frontières. He asked why she was there. Because I feel responsible for what is going on here. Because I can’t tolerate such a world. I don’t want to collaborate with bandits, be an accomplice in crime. Deniz does not share her feelings. I don’t want to testify to the sufferings of this world. Pain cannot be witnessed. It can only be fought – and I’m not ready for such a fight. I’m not ready for any fight. When he phones his parents, he is upset that, though they are proud of his success, they show no interest in his welfare and when or even whether he is coming home. In short, he feels that he can never meet his parents’ expectations. Of his mother he says: Professor Elif Eren, always unruffled, always clever and always right, never made a mistake. He also asks (about children): Are they an object for the realisation of their [i.e. their parents] ambitions, for the satisfaction of their own egos? Or do you want to create a person whose happiness will bring joy, whose values and choices will be respected?

When he was a child, they took him to a remote Norwegian island, which they called Devil’s Island. When there they met an old man who was a German and admitted that he was a deserter. He was now lonely, old, without friends and family and feels somewhat guilty at having effectively deserted life. This is one of the key themes of this book – does one commit, like Elif and Ömer, or does one simply live one’s life, like Deniz wishes to do or like Mahmut and his wife planned to do?

Deniz heads off to the island after Iraq and stays in the guest house, where he meets Ulla. They fall in love and have a son, Bjorn. They plan to stay there, away from the rest of the world. Two scarred children who have escaped the cruel world of adults and taken refuge in each other, awkward, vulnerable, craving love and recognition. However, Deniz feels that he has to take Ulla to Turkey to meet his parents (but not Bjorn who stays with his great-grandparents). While taking a photograph of Ulla in Istanbul, a suicide bomber detonates his bomb. When Deniz wakes up in hospital, he is badly injured and Ulla is dead.

Deniz returns to Norway, saying In this country [i.e. Turkey] it’s as though the fires, the bombs and the bullets are in the very people themselves. Ready to explode, to burst into flames at any moment and I have nothing here. Here I, I’m not …’ – he can’t find the word he seeks. ‘Here I’m a loser. This place scares me.’

While at a conference in Denmark, where Elif is to make a presentation which she hopes will win her the coveted prize of Woman Scientist of the Year, she decides to visit Deniz. Her visit does not go particularly well,though she and Bjorn do get on. Mother and son, however, argue. I would suggest you leave this place and return to real life. That you get away from this false refuge and return to us, to the world, however cruel, however savage it may be, Elif says to Deniz. Deniz does not agree. Your society has been conditioned to worship success and victory. People trample over one another for victory, for success. They step on one another and try to advance. They even kill each other. I don’t want that sort of success, he responds.

Meanwhile, Ömer has headed East, specifically to the village Mahmut came from. He has an eventful time there. He meets Mahmut’s father, who wanted his sons not to get involved in the armed struggle but has now lost one son (his eldest son has recently been killed) and fears he has lost Mahmut as well. Ömer meets various people involved in the struggle, and finds that the situation is far more complicated than he thought. The Kurds fighting the Turks are far from saints. There are executions for trivial offences, blatant sexism (a woman is raped and then blamed when she becomes pregnant) and cruelty. And for what? The armed struggle seems to achieve little, except to being down further repression from the Turks. Can one person make a difference or does it need a large, coordinated group? is the question asked.

Ömer meets some of the Turkish authorities and more than once is given veiled threats about his involvement. Violence is everywhere, and it always strikes the innocent says one character while another says You have nowhere to go but yourself. The violence of the age will find you everywhere.

This really is a superb book. Baydar deals with a whole host of complex issues: parent-children relations and the age-old concern as to whether children should be entirely free to follow their own path, whatever it may be, or should be guided by their parents and, if so, how much; violence in society and how necessary it is, how we can deal with it and how we can escape it; racism; marital relations; personal responsibility – should we all stand up and fight injustice and oppression and, if so, how, or are we all better off “deserting” and just trying to live our own lives; and how we cope with what we think of ourselves and what we think we can and should make of our own lives. Highly recommended.

Publishing history

First published by Can in 2007
First published in English by Peter Owen in 2008