'Istanbul Istanbul': Tragic Tales From the Underground

Burhan Sonmez’s Istanbul Istanbul is filled with stories of imagination and hope that help the four protagonists survive torture in an underground prison in the Turkish capital.

Somewhere in Burhan Sonmez’s recently translated novel Istanbul Istanbul, one of the prisoners declares to his fellow inmate that “hope is better than what we have”. This hope comes not from the city of the title, but from the stories and lives that make up this city. Istanbul Istanbul is a novel set in a prison, and in prison, the means of survival are as creative and distinct as the prisoners themselves.

In order to continue existing, the protagonist has to build an alternative reality, for a prison is built precisely to wipe out his or her existence. The prisoner, therefore, dons the garb of a storyteller.

Khoury’s Yalo as forerunner

This device of using the prisoner as the storyteller was used beautifully by Elias Khoury, a Lebanese novelist whose novel Yalo is a torture-prison text worthy of being called a classic. Khoury, a former member of Fatah, who had a first-hand experience of prison and torture, understood the psyche of the prisoner within the suffocating four walls of a damp prison cell. Therefore, he also knew about the technique of the torturer to make the prisoner write his own story, sitting naked in a dark cell and writing from the confines of his memory, for memory is a web of lies and can be painfully shy when you are burning from the numerous cigarette burns on your body, the electric shocks and the rage of shame.

To write about your life when you know that the next minute it might perish – along with the identity that you have built for decades, an identity your torturer expects you to remember and write about precisely because he wants you to realise what, indeed, is being erased – is a torture in itself.

This is precisely what the character Yalo undergoes repeatedly until he is broken and exhausted by his own life. Khoury builds upon the idea of pitying the protagonist, which we cannot do – although we are expected to – because Yalo is a serial rapist, a robber and a stalker. This playfulness with the reader, both in terms of sympathising with an anti-hero and digging out the amount of truth in his story for ourselves reaches its zenith with Yalo, with whom we come to develop a complicated relationship.

Pitting the overground against the underground

Sonmez does not create complicated protagonists, but they are conflicted all the same. Their truths are their stories, but in contrast to Yalo, these stories help them in survival rather than functioning as tools of torture. The stories range from folktales – each chapter of which begins with a narration from each of the four inmates at least once – to anecdotes, memories, myths, riddles and musings, all woven with one single subject: Istanbul, the city.

Istanbul Istanbul Burhan Sönmez Speaking Tiger Books, 2016

Istanbul Istanbul
Burhan Sönmez
Speaking Tiger Books, 2016

Sonmez pits the “overground” city with the “underground” one – thus the title – which is the prison cell in which the four inmates find themselves confined in. They are all seemingly political prisoners and subjected to grave torture, but politics and torture hardly make an appearance, instead being replaced by imagination and the hope that imagination is famed for providing.

The question then – and there are several posed in the novel – is, does it? Does imagination provide hope? Or does it make the prisoner dive deeper into his pain and misery? For imagination within confined spaces can work either way, as it did for Yalo and does for Kamo the barber, a pessimist who cares not for the musings of his comrades but instead pities them for their hope, essentially acting as a defence mechanism against the onslaught of torture.

“… Isn’t it bad enough,” Kamo asks the student Demirtay, “freezing on this concrete, without having to tell stories of snow and blizzards as well?” The others feel that Kamo would come around, but that is only “if they took him away blindfolded and ripped his flesh to ribbons if they hanged him for hours with his arms outstretched…”

What the torturers do to Kamo is worse, but he doesn’t abandon his pessimism. If anything, it only deepens, and he manages to transfer it on to his torturers enough for them to call home their wives and tell them that they are tired and devastated.

In Istanbul Istanbul, the torture is invisible, but that makes it far more present, for it is to fend off the torture that the inmates fantasise, invent and retell the stories that we are reading. The tortured, as in Bensalem Himmich’s My Torturess, cry for a medicine. In Himmich’s novel, it is religion, or in other words, hope. In Sonmez’s novel, it is imagination, also, in other words, hope.

The Istanbul of imagination

The other theme of Istanbul Istanbul is, of course, the city itself. We don’t want a history of the city and we don’t get it. What we do get, however, is an intense desire for the air of the city, the air of nostalgia and regret that marks the existence of Istanbul.

Below the labyrinths of the city, the prisoners long for the scent of its normalcy. “Sometimes we would catch the scent of the sea, sometimes of pine, sometimes of orange peel and we would do our best to cling to that sensation that slipped away in an instant.” The city, bustling above, is a fantasy and reality at the same time, and all the stories of all the cities are stories of Istanbul. As the doctor makes it clear, “… the city where millionaires, thieves and poets go is Istanbul. Every story is about here.”

It is not as if the regret of Istanbul’s decline does not bother the prisoners. It bothered the other beloved of Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk, when he wrote that for him the city had “always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy. I’ve spent my life either battling with this melancholy or [like all Istanbullus] making it my own way.”

Burhan Sönmez. Credit: Author website

Burhan Sönmez. Credit: Author website

The Istanbullus of Sonmez’s novel are nostalgic for the city that has disappeared, which is true of any resident of a modern city, but they are also deeply pained by the decay of the city, because living under it, they recreate its history and its past their own way, which they have to, because the city outside has changed. They still love it, but they love it because they cannot do without loving Istanbul and its many lights, its streets and its structures. “When I was a child,” the doctor relates, “The lifeblood of Istanbul pulsed in the streets.” Gone are those days, to be replaced now with “growing number of cars and grand buildings” which crushes the squares beneath their giant shadows.

Sonmez’s Istanbullus are strange people because they are both in awe of and disgusted by Istanbul, which was also the case with Pamuk in his bittersweet memoir. Another curious similarity is uncle Kuheylan’s retelling of his other self in the city. “When I am out of here… I’m going to look for the person who’s my double and who leads a different life here.”

Uncle Kuheylan is in love with the city, but he has never seen the city because he was picked up by the army and dumped right below the city. However, he is sure that there is another uncle Kuheylan overground, living an Istanbul life, similar to the little Pamuk who thinks that “somewhere in the streets of Istanbul, in a house resembling ours, there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my twin, even my double.”

Perhaps Sonmez is nodding towards that Pamuk through uncle Kuheylan, or perhaps it was unintended. Either way, it manages to highlight the magic of ideas that Istanbul inspires, and has inspired for centuries together.

A city in capitalist disorder

Sonmez has created in Istanbul Istanbul a measured classic. I think the novel will need some time to gather fame, for it is not an easy undertaking. There are layers of stories within stories which, just like Istanbul, make the book a labyrinth of deserted lanes and silent streets. But along with being a city novel, Istanbul Istanbul is also, curiously, a critique of the capitalist disorder, so plainly evident in historic cities being modernised – for example the Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz or Albert Cossery and the Beirut of Khoury.

These writers have paid beautiful tributes to their cities, whether by charting their maps and placing their stories gently on them or by making the city itself a character. Sonmez does something similar, but in doing so, he also weighs the cost that Istanbullus had to pay for the love of their city. In the end, they remained underground loving her as Istanbul bred for them their doubles above.

Atharva Pandit is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics from Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai.