The origins of Turkish literary modernity can be traced back to a mid-nineteenth-century Ottoman Muslim engagement with Enlightenment ideals. The literary form of the novel appeared during the Tanzimat era of modernization, first through translations (e.g., of François Fénelon's Télémaque and Victor Hugo's Les Misérables in 1862 and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in 1864), then through imitations that merged local form and content such as traditional meddah storytelling with the European novel. Early novels such as emsettin Sami's Taauk-i Talât ve Fitnat (1872, The Romance of Talât and Fitnat), Namık Kemal's ntibah (1874, The Awakening), and Ahmet Mithat Efendi's Dürdane Hanιm (1882, Miss Durdaneh) opened up a social space of self-examination with a moral intent to guide and instruct readers in the face of European cultural encroachment. The transition from a literary modernity to a fin-de-siècle aesthetic of literary modernism occurred through authors like Halit Ziya Uaklıgil, who were able to emphasize aesthetic concerns and structure in novels like Mai ve Siyah (1897, Blue and Black) and Ak-ι Memnu (1900, Illicit Love). In other words, the Ottoman novel itself was a medium of modernization. Its mediation, revision, and updating of narrative traditions in a new genre marked the beginnings of a literary modernity that persisted into the twentieth century and laid the foundation for an aesthetic of modernism that emerged more fully in the Republican era.
The process of Ottoman modernization did not prevent the failure of the Ottoman state. The historical oppositions of tradition and modernity, East and West, and Islam and Christianity found their way into literature through representative characters and tropes. These cultural oppositions were intensified by the occupation of the Ottoman capital of Istanbul (1918—23) by Allied armies after WWI and the Kemalist Cultural Revolution (1922—38) that responded to that occupation with a concentrated period of social engineering. Whereas the occupation ensured the partition of Ottoman territories into mandates, nation-states, and kingdoms, the Cultural Revolution, as if to sanction a European secular example, abolished the Ottoman Islamic sultanate, followed by the caliphate, and changed the written language, the legal system, dress codes, time, and the calendar. Perhaps owing to the intensity of events, a historiographic mode of novel-writing began to define literary modernity as in the novels of Halide Edib and Yakup Kadri Karaosmanolu. Literary realism dominated in the milieu of Republican social engineering that resulted in a cultural mapping of the opposition between tradition and modernity upon two distinct historical polities: the defunct Ottoman Islamic empire and the secular Republic of Turkey, respectively. As a result, the Tanzimat state of duality that dominated the formative period of Ottoman literary modernity became a trope of the “divided self” in the Republican period. The duality preoccupied Republican authors and intellectuals, constituting one of the major tropes of Turkish literary modernism observable in the novel from Ahmet Mithat Efendi to Orhan Pamuk.
The following tripartite periodization emphasizes the contingencies of a century and a half of literary development from modernity to modernism and postmodernism.
Ottoman Literary Modernity
Early Ottoman authors of modernization including inasi, Namık Kemal, Samipaazade Sezai, Muallim Naci, and Recaizade Ekrem sanctioned “Westernization” only to the degree that it would preserve the Ottoman—Islamic order. They did not fully adopt Enlightenment epistemological foundations. The crises of modernization, as they affected Ottoman society, focused on a process of defensive modernization over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This meant that novels were often socially instructive and didactic in their aim rather than literary.
Ottoman Modernism (1876—1908)
This period is marked by two constitutional periods in late Ottoman history—beginning in 1876 and 1908, respectively—that might be read as part of a transnational movement of Modernist Islam stretching from Central Asia to North Africa. The late nineteenth-century Ottoman modern was an urban figure seduced by the trappings of European culture (including dress, the French language, and new modes of consumption). The dilemma, in short, was one of Ottoman Islam on the cusp of European colonization, and the response of Ottoman intellectuals preoccupied with reform and negotiating a synthesis between aspects of tradition and modernity. Though such themes are taken up in Recaizade Ekrem's Araba Sevdasi (1896, Carriage Romance) and Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar's ipsevdi (1911, Love at First Sight), the representative novel of this era is Ahmet Mithat Efendi's Felatun Bey ve Rakιm Efendi (1876, Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi). This iconic novel describes positive and negative engagements in the late Ottoman modernization process through its display of the lives of two opposing characters: one representing passive mimickry of Europe and the other a strong work ethic steeped in traditional values. These two possible models of social change are contrasted as an object lesson against excessive “Westernization.”
Ottoman Turkism (1908—22)
This time span reflects a period of almost constant warfare. The ideological changes brought about by the second constitutional revolution (1908), the Balkan Wars, WWI, and its continuation in Anatolia until 1922 resulted in a violent remapping of Ottoman territory based on ethno-religious categories that led to the transformation of the figure of the Ottoman modern. Turkism, the ideology of Turkish nationalism, provided an argument for self-determination in a limited territory that avoided the vagueness of Ottomanism, the expansiveness of Islamism, and the colonial cast of Westernism. “East vs. West” debates regarding tradition and reform are reflected in the works of Ottoman Turkist writers such as Ziya Gökalp, Ömer Seyfettin, Halide Edib Adıvar, and Müfide Ferit Tek. Reat Nuri Güntekin's Çalιkuu (1922; Autobiography of a Turkish Girl, 1949), a popular novel of this era, is significant for its use of Anatolia as a setting, its identification of the challenges that await the “new” women of modernist Islam, and its implicit critique of Istanbul society for its ignorance of the lives of Anatolian peasants. Compromised in terms of gender and sexuality, the main character Feride becomes the focus of a dilemma of modernization; in short, as an educated woman she must struggle against the obstacles of Anatolian traditionalism.
Republican Literary Modernism
The Kemalist Cultural Revolution instigated a new wave of Turkish literary modernity in the 1920s and 1930s. The intensity of the social engineering that occurred during these years caused a break between the Ottoman—Islamic past and national progress that affected literary production throughout the Republican era. Not only were the alphabet and language transformed, but Muslim traditions and symbols were pushed into the private sphere, and Sufi practices were outlawed. The tensions between Istanbul cosmopolitanism and Anatolia were reflected in the novel through realistic depictions that constituted the dominant conflict of literary modernism.
Republican Turkism (1922—50)
This era witnessed the proliferation of ideological novels supporting the Cultural Revolution, i.e., historically grounded representations of new “men” and new societies with a socialist, nationalist, and/or Turkist coloring. Often the main characters can be clearly read as didactic, allegorical figures. This period begins with the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate in 1922 and caliphate in 1924. Over the next few decades, the national allegories in novels written in the 1920s and 1930s by Yakup Kadri Karaosmanolu, Peyami Safa, and Halide Edib gradually give way to more nuanced accounts. In the work of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, the reader is confronted not with object lessons, morality, or “party” novels espousing the Kemalist vision of society and history, but with a complex reckoning of the transition between Ottoman and Turkist worldviews. In the milestone novel Huzur (1949; A Mind at Peace, 2009), the historical traumas experienced in the establishment of the Republic have become psychological dilemmas that afflict the middle-class characters. The novel, set in 1939, dramatizes the mental breakdown of the main character, Mümtazm in the turmoil of the illness of his cousin and mentor hsan, the ending of his relationship with his beloved Nuran, the suicide of his nemesis Suad (who also loves Nuran), and the impending WWII. In its depiction of Istanbul's streets, neighborhoods, Ottoman music, and the Bosphorus, the novel is an icon of modernist, cosmopolitan prose with leitmotifs of urban Turkish culture. Huzur, harkening back to the era of Ottoman modernism, is one of the first testimonies to the cultural limitations of national and social modernization projects.
Anatolian Realism (1950—71)
The start of multiparty politics in 1946 and the election of the Democrat Party to power in 1950 contained an implicit critique of the Cultural Revolution that was reflected in literature through a move away from nationalist ideals focusing on elite intellectuals to socialist ideals focusing on the Anatolian peasant. The genre, often historically grounded and based on the use of actual documents, addresses bleak economic hardships, blood feuds, patriarchy, honor, outlaws, and the cruelty of gendarmes, petty officials, and exploitation by aas (landowners). The 1960 coup and the new constitution established wide-ranging freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, and the right to form unions, and autonomy in universities reinforced a socialist context and kept alive the possibility of social freedoms and justice. Author-intellectuals including Orhan Kemal, lhan Tarus, Talip Apaydın, Fakir Baykurt, and Tarık Bura helped to establish the genre that advocated social justice for the dispossessed. But not until the work of Kemal Tâhir was this genre historicized and applied innovatively to the Ottoman past. In his famous novel Devlet Ana (1967, Mother State), Tâhir combines Anatolian realism, the Marxist belief in the Asiatic Mode of Production, and strains of Turkism, introducing a new understanding of historiography into the socialist novel. Drawing on the geographic, economic, and social conditions that gave rise to the Ottoman Anatolian (and by extension, the Turkish Republican Anatolian) state, Devlet Ana focuses on the establishment of the Ottoman state after the dissolution of the Seljuk state around 1300. It is, however, an allegory for the establishment of a socialist state accepting a variety of people, languages, and religions in the present.
Feminism and Existentialism (1971—80)
The Anatolian socialist novel, which was meant to confront the realities of rural life, became formulaic and idealized, later leading to the emergence of individual concerns in the following generation, especially by women authors frustrated with marginalization. Strong women emerged to make social critiques of earlier eras, as exemplified by the narratives of Leyla Erbil, Sevgi Soysal, and Füruzan. Other writers retreated into isolation and alienation, such as Ouz Atay (noted for his iconic novel Tutunamayanlar, 1972; The Good-for-Nothing), Bilge Karasu, and Yusuf Atılgan. Futhermore, themes involving Islam and lived traditions began to appear with greater frequency, perhaps filling “spaces” evacuated by large-scale socialist movements that had failed to gain political power and transform society. At the same time, the hidayet romanι (Islamic novel) grew through the efforts of authors such as ule Yüksel enler, Ahmet Günbay Yıldız, and Mustafa Miyasolu.
The “inter-coup” era was a socially fragile period that witnessed the removal of intellectuals from life, career, and family in society. Irony and sarcasm about ideological projects on the left and the right began to make their way into fiction, and depictions of alienation become prominent. Themes include the critique or indictment of national and socialist modernity from the perspective of its victims: women, alienated intellectuals, Islamicists, and other marginalized populations. Adalet Aaolu's Ölmeye Yatmak (1973, Lying Down to Die) is a novel that represents this period with a female protagonist, Aysel, a professor who withdraws to a hotel room to commit suicide. The focus on the plight of one woman is set against a reckoning of Turkish history between 1938 (Atatürk's death) and the revolutionary upheavals of 1968 in Europe. Aysel has had an affair with one of her students, Engin, and believes she might be pregnant. The moral and ethical implications disrupt everything she has known about bourgeois life in Turkey. The reemergence of sexuality is an important theme here, and the novel represents the stirrings of second-wave feminism out of the first wave (“state feminism”) in the Turkish context.
Republican Literary Postmodernism
The strong hold of committed literature of social engagement and realism delayed the acceptance of formal innovation in the novel that relied on metanarrative, metahistory, and deconstruction. Republican postmodernist writing focused on historiographic fiction, fantasy, and parodic genres that placed literary artifice over and above socialist concerns and Anatolian realism. The literary establishment reacted with animosity toward such cosmopolitan formal innovation, which also implicitly critiqued the narrative of national and social progress. Well-known practitioners of this trend include Ouz Atay, Bilge Karasu, Hasan Ali Topta, and hsan Oktay Anar.
Post-nationalism and Neo-Ottomanism(1980—2002)
The leftist intelligentsia marks the 1980 coup as the beginning of “depoliticization,” a first step in reorienting society toward neoliberalism. In literature, this led to drastic changes, as writers responded to the political transformations by moving away from social issues and realism in a manner that questioned grand narratives of nationalism/Kemalism and socialism through aesthetic experimentation with content and form. Though these trends could be more generally labeled part of postmodernism, their manifestation in the Turkish context can be further specified as expressions of literary post-Kemalism, post-socialism, and neo-Ottomanism (not to be confused with the political ideology).
A strong Marxist tradition led to a delay and resistance to the representation of postmodernism, a literary category that was suspect to the practitioners of engaged literature and the literature of witness. The novels of this period acknowledge the collapse of metanarratives of socio-national progress through the multiplication of perspectives, the ironic revisiting of Ottoman history, parody, formal experimentation, and the subversion of realism through fantasy or magical realism. Latife Tekin and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk define this generation of writers. Pamuk's ever-changing narrative style reached the first of many peaks with his third novel, Beyaz Kale (1985; The White Castle, 1990), a concise historical metafiction that subtly criticizes authoritarian nationalism while reintroducing the Ottoman past to a sophisticated, literary readership. Furthermore, the novel presents an allegorical challenge by subverting the self/other binary through a display of narrative finesse that marked Pamuk as a postmodern writer. In the novel, a Venetian slave and his Ottoman master reveal their worlds to each other until they begin to overlap. The Ottoman theme in Pamuk's work is picked up again with Benim Adιm Kιrmιzι (1998; My Name Is Red, 2001), a complex and fragmented work that takes the flat, two-dimensionality of the Ottoman miniature painting and transforms it into a living, vital, aesthetic model pertinent to the present day. The novel, combing a number of genres, is a historical murder mystery focusing on the imperial miniaturists' guild and a mysterious book that the Sultan has commissioned. In its multiplicity of narrators and its aesthetic self-consciousness, the novel becomes Pamuk's “large canvas.”
Cosmopolitical Texts (2002—Present)
There are a few hundred novelists writing in Turkish today. The novels of the youngest generation of Turkish writers, represented by Murat Uyurkulak, ebnem igüzel, and Elif afak, are emotionally charged, cynical, and violent. They are political, yet promote distance from their immediate cultural affiliations. The novelistic claims by these authors are cosmopolitical in that they have multiple national and international affiliations that strive for transnational legibility and relevance. This is the generation of EU accession politics and the rise of the Justice and Development Party, which won general elections in 2002 and 2007. The writers of the newest generation do not ascribe to any particular movement in the traditional sense. Their idiosyncrasies, experimental in terms of form and content, are, however, unified in one important respect: their work represents a mixing or crossing of traditional novelistic styles that might include detective stories, underground fiction, youth subcultures, and fantasy. The boundaries that they cross in their fiction challenge the limits of national tradition through transgressions of taboo, history, gender, and genre. They have learned to live with contradictions rather than trying to resolve them. In the wake of the collapse of grand narratives of modernization, nationalism, and socialism, and in an increasingly consumerist culture, they explore new avenues of cynical narration that unsettle concepts of belonging.
Representing the first generation to grow up within the neoliberal system that was established after the 1980 coup, these writers are tacticians of resistance on an individual rather than social scale. They have little conviction in monolithic ideologies, but they do have an inkling of the market of identities and a multitude of sites of power influencing one's choices. In short, there is a new relationality in these works, a new way of seeing the regional and international world into which Turkey has increasingly become integrated. Importantly, these authors are redefining what it means to be Turkish.
Uyurkulak's Tol (2002, Revenge) is a reassessment, an unofficial history, of the previous fifty years of Turkey's history told from the perspective of poets, revolutionaries, and madmen from various generations. The fragmented plot revolves around an alcoholic poet (“Poet”) and a proofreader, Yusuf, who has lost his will to live. The two are on a train journey from Istanbul to the heavily Kurdish region of Diyarbakır—two cities representing the opposing poles of modern Turkish modernity and oppression/dispossession. Tol conveys the perspective of frustrated leftist idealism that exacts its revenge against the state and a system of war, inhumanity, and capitalism through alternative narratives and ways of being.
This 150-year overview of Ottoman and Republican literary modernity reveals that the Turkish novel has not stayed within the confines of historically determined binaries of modernization such as “East and West” but has established contingent tropes and chronotopes of literary modernity, modernism, and postmodernism.
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