Elvis makes another comeback

Sara Wheeler explains why an undead leader is always on his country's mind The Turkish Labyrinth: Ataturk and the new Islam by James Pettifer, Viking, pounds 18 Turkey Unveiled: Ataturk and after by Nicole and Hugh Pope, Murray, pounds 25
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As the three authors of these two excellent books acknowledge, we don't seem to know what to make of Turkey these days. Is it East or West? Modern European nation or hotbed of Islamic fanaticism? Should we let it join the EU, or are we too worried about its human rights record?

Turkey Unveiled and The Turkish Labyrinth are far too sophisticated to offer pat answers, but they shed a good deal of light on a nation still crouching in the shadows of its heritage. Both books include a sprightly account of modern Turkey's background. Ataturk's consolidation, in 1923, of what was left after the post-Great War carve-up seemed to mark a definitive break with the Ottoman past, but the conflict between his secular legacy and the gradual reassertion of Islam continues to be bitter and far-reaching.

The two books cover roughly the same terrain. As well as the Islamic renaissance, they document the plight of the Armenians in Turkey, the Kurdish crisis and the German-centred Turkish diaspora. Both deal with the country's EU application (when Turgut Ozal made it, say the Popes, "the European establishment reacted as if one of the ugly sisters had asked the prince for a dance") and the country's role in the Balkans, Cyprus and new central Asian republics such as Tajikistan, which have Turkic or partly Turkic populations.

James Pettifer, who has already written a study of Greece, is a journalist and, latterly, an academic. His book is a political, economic and cultural portrait, firmly rooted in history and usefully divided into three thematic sections. The style is a model of clarity, and Pettifer reveals an eye for colourful detail that raises the narrative above the wasteland of academic prose (many Turks of the secular elite, he claims, see Ataturk as the Turkish Elvis, as he keeps coming back from the dead). He has heart, too, recognising the passing of something valuable in both the march of westernisation and the heat of religious fervour. "The wonderful diversity and richness in personal identity and daily life in Turkey", he opines, "are being lost: the Islam of mystery, imagination and The Thousand and One Nights is being reduced to a grim Koranic legalism, as a response to the emptiness of the technocratic West and its secular juggernaut".

The Popes' affection for Turkey is of a different strain. It is not romantic, like Pettifer's, but based on nine years spent reporting on Turkey. Noting the cult of Ataturk that pervades national life, they take a more critical look at the man, emphasising his autocratic tendencies, vanity and hard drinking. "He led Turkey on the path of westernisation," they write, "but left it stranded half-way to full democratisation because, deep down, he was not a democrat." They pay more attention to the personalities of Turkish politics, notably the reforming president Turgut Ozal.

The Popes are less willing than Pettifer to accept that Turkish history neatly divides into pre- and post-Ataturk; I think this is helpful. "A westernising trend," they note, "had in fact started in the Ottoman empire, long before this blue-eyed leader from Macedonia arrived on the scene." Turkey Unveiled develops chronologically. It is longer than The Turkish Labyrinth, covers each topic in greater detail and is more penetrating in its analysis. The Popes can be heavy going, and their text is slowed down by the monotony of the chronological structure (the 1980s, in particular, drag on interminably). Pettifer's thematic narrative escapes the tyranny of chronology, and he has produced a more digestible tome. The Popes, however, have adroitly marshalled a huge amount of material and they write well, despite lapses into infelicitous journalese ("The bloody curse of political violence bequeathed to Turkey by the 1970s had struck again ...").

Were I (God forbid) about to join the Turkish desk of the Foreign Office, I would choose the Popes' book. But for slipping into your suitcase before a holiday on the Turkish coast, Pettifer is your man. All agree that Turkey's face is set immutably westwards, but their prognoses for the country's future as it struggles with high inflation, endemic unemployment and crippling debt are desperately cautious.

Turkey is often perceived in the West as a kind of twilit semi-European third world. But beware. Many of the problems enumerated in these two books are instantly recognisable. "The radical right economics of Milton Friedman which have been followed in the last 20 years," writes James Pettifer, "have given the rich more and more opportunities to make profits out of the public sector". Sounds familiar?