Top 10 novels about Turkey | Defne Suman

Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak are the international star names, but all of these writers bring a distinctive lightness of heart to bear on a very heavy history

I am often asked what defines Turkish literature. Is it Orhan Pamuk’s depictions of a society caught between modernity and traditionalism? Or Elif Shafak’s novels, which highlight the difficulty of being a woman in Turkey? Does our literature have to be political in order to be considered “Turkish”?

If, as Abraham Verghese says in his brilliant Cutting for Stone, “geography is destiny”, then I think it does. In my latest novel, At the Breakfast Table, a family gathering to celebrate the matriarch’s 100th birthday soon exposes the family’s – and Turkey’s – fraught history. The book examines the complications of family life alongside the despotism, violence and atrocities that litter our history and the social amnesia that now surrounds us. In this way, I see my writing as Turkish – these are the issues that we breathe every day; they are buried in the soil under our feet. Yet there is also a balance: the greatest Turkish literature discusses serious issues, but will also lighten the heart and put a smile on your face.

With the choices below, I wanted to highlight books about Turkey that not only talk about its historical and social context, but also reflect the distinctive styles and the creativity of their authors in dealing with individual, philosophical and political questions.

1. In the Shadow of the Yali by Suat Dervis
Originally published in 1945, this is the Madame Bovary of Turkish literature. One of Turkey’s leading female authors, Dervis (1905–72) wrote about the loss and longing of urban, affluent Turkish women. In this novel, Celile is torn between her respectable husband and her passionate tango partner in 1940s Istanbul. Although the story is, in many ways, universal, Dervis brilliantly captures the particularities of Turkish society and its struggle with modernity. This rare gem is finally available in English thanks to Maureen Freely’s masterful translation.

2. Highly Unreliable Account of the History of a Madhouse by Ayfer Tunç
Well, the title says it all! A postmodern Arabian Nights, the novel takes place over one Valentine’s Day in a mental institution on the Black Sea. One story interweaves with another so masterfully that you barely notice the transition, yet by the time the book ends you realise that you have travelled in time, back and forth across a century, and encountered hundreds of characters who are all interconnected. Creative and hilarious, Feyza Howell’s translation doesn’t skip a beat, managing to recreate the unique rhythm of this powerful novel.

Orhan Pamuk pictured at his Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.
Orhan Pamuk pictured at his Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

3. The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Each time I read this book I find something new in it. Set in 1970s Istanbul, it follows 30-year-old Kemal, the son of an educated urban family, who falls in love with a distant relative – the beautiful 18-year-old Füsun – who comes from a family of modest means. This story of ill-fated love translated by Maureen Freely is also about Kemal awakening to his true nature. Pamuk winks at Proust and Walter Benjamin, as Kemal collects objects that remind him of his lost beloved. Pamuk has also built a real Museum of Innocence: if you are visiting Istanbul, you can go to Füsun’s house and see “her” shoes and dresses, cinema tickets, and the hundreds of cigarette butts that the heartbroken Kemal collected.

4. The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak
My favourite Shafak book. It is at once funny and tragic, a modern Istanbul story that takes place in 10 flats which sit within the once-glorious, now dilapidated Bonbon Palace. A story within a story which is told from the different perspectives of the building’s residents, The Flea Palace paints a brilliant picture of Turkey on the brink of the 21st century, and is written with intelligence and love.

5. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel is considered a Detroit tale, although it begins in the Ottoman empire. Two siblings, Ottoman citizens of Greek descent, run away from war and end up in New York with a secret in their hearts and in their DNA, and this opening is crucial to the plot as it plays out. The collapse of this cosmopolitan empire and its evolution into the nation state of Turkey forms the backbone of Eugenides’s story, and the pain and grief for a land lost forever is transmitted to the younger generations in this story of family, inheritance and the immigrant experience.

6. A Mind at Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar
First published in 1949, A Mind at Peace is regarded as the Turkish Ulysses and contains the most beautiful picture of Istanbul ever depicted in literature, as well as offering deep insights into human nature. As we walk with its 30-year-old protagonist along the shores of the Bosphorus in Erdag Goknar’s translation, we recognise the human condition that is within us all, the very core of our being: love, compassion and our eternal need to belong.

7. Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin
Kulin is the most popular novelist in Turkey. She is prolific and researches her subjects well. Translated by John W Baker, this book takes place during the second world war, revealing a very little-known part of Turkish history: the mission to rescue Turkish Jews in Paris from the Nazi occupation. Like a train, the novel starts slowly, and speeds up as it nears the end. When you come to the last chapters and still don’t know if the protagonists will cross the border or not, you feel breathless.

a still from the 1987 film version of Motherland Hotel.
Unsettling … a still from the 1987 film version of Motherland Hotel Photograph: PR

8. Motherland Hotel by Yusuf Atilgan
In this existential nightmare, ably translated by Fred Stark, the anti-hero Zebercet is waiting for his lover’s arrival in a small hotel that was, once upon a time, a wealthy mansion. It is both an unsettling book depicting a mind captured by its own obsession, and a story of the ambiguities of post-Ottoman society in small-town Turkey.

9. A Useless Man: Selected Stories by Sait Faik Abasiyanik
Abasiyanik’s stories are reminiscent of Chekhov’s – short and witty, critical of society and politics – and A Useless Man is the most comprehensive collection of his work in English, translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe. The stories portray the everyday life of ordinary people in Istanbul and the complications that transpired during the country’s transformation from the Ottoman empire to the modern Turkish republic.

10. Waiting for Fear by Oğuz Atay
Here Atay asks the question “Who are we?” and tries to answer it in each individual short story, which are all told in his signature ironic style. The book has now been translated into English by Ralph Hubbell and will be out in 2023. It is a great way to take a peek into the “soul of Turkey”, something Atay himself was very curious about in his lifetime.

• At the Breakfast Table by Defne Suman is published by Head of Zeus (£20). To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

• This article was amended on 16 September to correct the name of the translator of Waiting for Fear.

Defne Suman

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