Although Turkish literature is still far from well-represented in the Anglophone world, the past few years have seen an increasing trickle of translations: leaving Orhan Pamuk aside, we have Hasan Ali Toptaş’s Reckless and the upcoming Shadowless, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s The Time Regulation Institute, Sait Faik’s A Useless Man, and Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat. Now joining these classics is Motherland Hotel, the first work of Yusuf Atılgan to appear in English. With its warping of space and time through memory and association, its modernist descent into a singular consciousness through layered voices, and its sharp focus on the minutiae of everyday life, this novel offers rich material for film adaptation. Not coincidentally, this year the Istanbul Film Festival is showing a restored version of the film based on the book.
Back in 1987, Motherland Hotel won the Film Critics award at the Venice International Film Festival, and lead actor Macit Koper won the Best Male Actor Award at the Nantes Film Festival. This year Koper will receive the Istanbul Film Festival’s Cinema Honorary Award.
Koper’s role is Zebercet, owner of the remote and dilapidated Motherland Hotel. His character and the hotel itself are a study in miniature of Turkey after the 1980 coup, showing how oppression and despair corrupt human relationships. In this period overtly political films were banned, so filmmakers often turned to stories about individuals while embedding political subtexts through symbolism. One example is found in Zebercet’s suicide, which happens on the same time and date as Atatürk’s death.
“We certainly knew that we were doing a good job during the filming. But we weren’t sure that viewers would come to terms with our work very easily,” Koper told The Guide Istanbul. The scenes of sexual violence involving Zebercet and other characters are not something that some viewers want to assimilate. But Koper believes the fundamental issues are universal. “Loneliness, lonely abandonment, the loneliness that we don’t realize most of the time, is a shared problem that both pulls us apart and secretly brings us together. There are many things that can make us lonely, but it’s still possible to collect them in a few categories. As Murat Belge says, Zebercet is a ‘social product.’ Like all of us. His story is one that we can understand and relate to with our conscious and unconscious faculties. The emblems and symbols that the film creates by drawing on the novel are almost the signs of our secret lives.”
There seems to be a fundamental attraction between Koper and the character, as he won the role without even taking an audition. “I had just read the novel, and like a prophecy I told (visual director) Orhan Oğuz that I would play the role. (Director) Ömer Kavur called a few days later and said that he wanted to meet. We met the next day and spoke about the novel, the screenplay and the role from morning till evening. That’s how I got the part,” he explains.
Thirty years later, audiences and critics still rank Motherland Hotel among the top ten Turkish films of all time. Although the country has changed, Koper believes that the film is more relevant than ever. “The film’s meaning is definitely still valid today. But the response that viewers give to this meaning – for about fifty percent of them – might be different. We are much lonelier, much more abandoned, and much less aware of everything than we were thirty years ago. There is nothing we won’t do to deny our loneliness, and no lie that we won’t invent to cover our abandonment. So for many viewers their relationship with this film will be a feeling of being caught, and then this denial that has become a form of identity will step in,” he says.
The film will be screened in its restored glory as part of the Istanbul Film Festival, running from April 5-16 this year. Find out more about the book from publisher City Lights Books.