Istanbul Istanbul: tales from the underground

Istanbul Istanbul: tales from the underground

Joshua Bruce Allen
May 17, 2016
  • Burhan Sönmez, Istanbul Istanbul
    Burhan Sönmez

Burhan Sönmez, Istanbul IstanbulBurhan Sönmez’s third novel presents a theme that is all too familiar to intellectuals in Turkey: political imprisonment. For almost a century, the country has seen the sufferings of cultural icons such as Nazım Hikmet, Orhan Kemal, and Yılmaz Güney. It is a topic that touches on Sönmez’s own past – he received medical help from the British charity Freedom from Torture after experiencing police violence in Turkey. But where others might write a novel of utter bleakness, in Istanbul Istanbul Sönmez turns an underground cell into a prism of memory, imagination, and storytelling.

“Some friends of mine couldn’t finish this book "

“In the history of literature, some people claim that you can write nothing but your own experience. I can say the same thing for myself,” Sönmez told The Guide Istanbul. “I collect things from my life, and then I reshape them or use them as a cement between the bricks in my mind. The story in Istanbul Istanbul is partly my experience, but more importantly it’s the experience of people in this society.” Sönmez’s first serious start at writing a novel began during his medical treatment in the UK. Quoting crucial Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, he says, “Writing is treatment for the brain.”

As Sönmez admits, “Some friends of mine couldn’t finish this book because they lived the same thing. For most of these people, their stories didn’t have a happy ending.” The product of ten years of planning, the novel draws on news reports and stories that Sönmez has heard either second-hand or directly. Some of the prisoners in the novel are imprisoned for their political activism, while others are victims of chance and circumstance. “Once I heard a story about someone like the doctor in the novel. The police came to the door and asked for a certain person who lived there,” says Sönmez. “The man said, ‘That’s me.’ Actually it was his son, but he lied to protect him. They took him and tortured him for months in Istanbul. I heard this many years ago and always wanted to write about it.”

“There is a dilemma in this book”

Sönmez’s novel also draws on the fourteenth-century frame narrative of The Decameron. In this early Italian epic, city dwellers escape the Black Death to tell stories for ten days in a country villa. The prisoners in Istanbul Istanbul also tell their tales over ten days, but rather than escaping the plague they are tortured horrifically by the police. “There is a dilemma in this book,” says Sönmez. “The beginning is very hard, it is torture and suffering. But I use this as a tool to enter the garden of Istanbul. This city is made of pieces like the Bosphorus, classical Turkish music, fairytales, and books.” The prisoners’ tales range from personal confessions to jokes, fairytales, and Turkified versions of Western classics. More than simply passing the time, these stories are a struggle to make sense of their present agony.

As his own life testifies, Sönmez believes in the liberating power of literature. “When you don’t have a door or a window, you create it yourself. Even writing a novel is creating a new window,” he says. “It’s the same for the characters in my book – they find ways of opening windows even while they’re underground.”

İstanbul İstanbul is published by OR Books and available for purchase via the publisher's website.