December 2011, TimeOut Istanbul (print edition only)
REVIEW: The Lost Word, by Oya Baydar (trans. by Stephanie Ateş)
A strange chorus tells the story in Oya Baydar’s latest novel, The Lost Word. The voice of the book veers between third- and first-person, each main character entering the narrative to interject a question, a lament, a memory, before seamlessly weaving back into the scenery once more.
It’s a bit unsettling at first. But this method of storytelling is wholly appropriate for a novel preoccupied with perceptions of otherness — particularly the ineffability of others’ pain — and the gulfs of understanding that have bred so much senseless violence across Turkey in recent decades.
It is the quest to understand and articulate other people’s suffering that drives Ömer Eren, the protagonist, to eastern Anatolia, where he seeks his own “lost word”. Once an idealistic student revolutionary who worked and wrote on behalf of oppressed peoples around Turkey, Ömer is a popular writer and literary critic when we meet him, successful and uncontroversial. A chance encounter folds him into the lives of Mahmut and Zelal, a young Kurdish couple escaping the trauma of the conflict in southeastern Anatolia but inexorably pursued by sinister figures from their past.
On the pretext of helping Mahmut and Zelal, Ömer travels east, hoping to rediscover the humanism that used to impassion and inspire him. In the meantime, his wife Elif, another former activist who has become renowned in her own intellectual field, heads west to see their estranged son, Deniz. Despite Ömer and Elif’s best efforts, Deniz has rejected a life of social and political engagement in volatile Turkey and retreated to a remote island in Norway with his own son.
This set-up promises an interesting tale. What makes Baydar’s book truly novel, however, is her subtle treatment of the conflicts that rive modern Turkish society. There are no heroes in The Lost Word. In the words of a character, “This place is not the world of innocent angels; no one has wings on his back. It’s war. War destroys innocence.” There is, however, a special class of villain: those who sacrifice themselves and others to a cause, be it Kurdish liberation, Turkish nationalism, or the promotion of their own egos.
Each character falls prey to some form of unquestioning ideological devotion, and Baydar treats each case even-handedly.
She identifies the same mechanisms of fear and control behind the command structure of Kurdish mountain guerrilla fighters and the Turkish education system that stigmatizes Kurdish culture, driving Kurdish youth to join the guerrillas in the first place. She allows Ömer’s sincere desire to see his country through Kurdish eyes to be constantly tempered by his patronizing frustration that the Kurds he meets don’t automatically like or trust him. In a set of heartbreaking subplots, Baydar examines the brutal ways that families reject the children who disappoint them, regardless of whether the child is culpable or the disappointment just.
One maxim rings again and again from the pages of The Lost Word: violence is committed more easily from afar. Distance breeds mistrust. In the mountains, for example, Mahmut describes how Kurdish guerrillas are trained to “learn the enemy by heart…. [because] when you come face to face with him, when you look him in the eye, you don’t see the enemy, you see another human being.” Ömer receives nearly identical advice from a Turkish army commander in a Kurdish village: “‘Never look too deeply into the eyes of the people around here.’”
The currency of closeness is language, and linguistic divides account for much of the isolation and violence with which Baydar’s characters contend. When they first meet, Zelal tells Ömer how a local dengbej, or storyteller, used to praise her ability to tell stories and say she’d take over the role one day. “Then when I went to school I was not allowed to tell stories in my mother tongue, our own language,” she recounts. “I lost the language of stories…. I lost the word.”
When Mahmut begins to think in Turkish, he regards it as the ultimate self-treachery. From his remote haven, Deniz also feels his identity slipping away with his mother tongue, but embraces the anonymity this brings him: “I can’t understand the language of this world. I can’t speak it. I’m frightened of it. Can one be a citizen of nowhere?”
Its rather abrupt ending aside, The Lost Word is a superbly crafted novel. Baydar’s urgent, energetic prose, translated by Stephanie Ateş, is fleshed out by a lush vocabulary and gorgeous scene descriptions. The translation is mostly smooth, although verb tense dissonance creeps into the text from time to time.
The conundrum at the heart of The Lost Word is the impossible quest of every writer: to perfectly articulate the lived experiences of others. What the best writers can do instead is instill in their readers a desire to seek the experiences that make great stories, and avoid the behaviors that inspire tragedies. At this task, Baydar has succeeded admirably.