Boyd Tonkin: On the waterfront in a fluid Istanbul

The Week In Books

Turkey has had an annual trade-based book fair for 28 years but, until this month, never an international literary festival. Now, with her team, the dynamic Nermin Mollaoglu of the Kalem agency has successfully made good that lack. Last week the first Istanbul Tanpinar Festival gathered more than 80 authors from 30 countries for events in bookshops, cafés, arts centres and campuses across the most eclectic and labyrinthine of all great cities. It even commandered a proper Sultan's palace - the Çiragan on the Bosphorus, now part of a luxury hotel - for the launch.

On a previous visit to meet Istanbul writers, I had registered that this unique metropolis will drown every cute generalisation in the fathomless depths of its heritage. Drop that weary cliché about a "bridge" between east and west, Europe and Asia, Islam and secular modernity... If you seek a watery metaphor for Istanbul (and autumn storms out of the Black Sea dumped floods on us last week), then think of the ferries that zigzag down the Golden Horn or along the Bosphorus, stopping off in neighbourhoods that can still feel almost like different countries.

True, so much of the old Ottoman diversity now survives more in buildings than in people. Many writers bitterly regret its loss, and seek in their work to restore it. I caught up with John Freely – author of a shelf of books on the city's past, and father of Maureen Freely, whose brilliant translations did so much to propel Orhan Pamuk towards his Nobel Prize – at an Armenian-run restaurant. "There are no Jews in the Jewish quarter," he was lamenting, "no Greeks in the Greek quarter, no Armenians in the Armenian quarter, no Roma in the Roma quarter..."

Outsiders sometimes find it hard to grasp that the ruling AK party, of former Islamists, feels far more comfortable about reviving the traditions of multi-cultural Ottoman Turkey than the old secular elite. Even the Kurds, their language denied for so long, now speak pretty audibly for themselves. Meanwhile, the Kemalists – loyal to the monotone nationalism of Atatürk, who built the nation out of the ruins of an empire – have their backs to the wall.

Events from the murder of the Turkish-Armenian writer Hrant Dink in 2007 through to the exposure of one army conspiracy after another have weakened the secular "deep state" and its claims to supervise democracy. For all the din among a crowd of fans outside the Besiktas football stadium, the real action last week was unfolding over the road at the Besiktas courthouse. Officers stood in the dock charged with a plot to undermine the government.

Liberal Turkish writers clearly prefer rule by a pluralistic "religious" party to the uniformed arrogance that drew up plans to assassinate Pamuk as well. Yet the old divisions can still ignite on the page. In chart-topping patriotic epics about the First World War and its aftermath such as Those Crazy Turks and Republic, the Kemalist novelist Turgut Özakman has charged into battle to defend Atatürk's secular nation. On the other side, and also selling well last week, Elif Shafak – author of The Bastard of Istanbul – revives a tolerant, rather mystical mindset in which a hundred flowers of thought can bloom. Her new novel Love, featuring both the medieval Sufi bard Rumi and 21st-century characters, is due in English soon.

Shafak had told me that – when it comes to language, religion, identity – "I don't want to choose". Istanbul's finest writers cherish the layer-cake complexity of their history, and resist polarising labels. In districts such as Balat, where headscarfed migrants from Anatolia glide through twisting lanes among dilapidated mansions once occupied by Greeks and Jews, this impacted past still speaks in varied voices. Hence the festival dedication to Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1962), the eccentric genius of Turkish letters who embraced every facet of his city and moved between its traditions. His heirs still cover the cultural waterfront, and visit every landing-stage along the way. Long may their engines turn.

P.S. On Tuesday, the auctioneers Bonhams sold the manuscript of a long-lost play – a court masque, in fact – written by the Jacobean poet Lord Edward Herbert in 1618 (left, Isaac Oliver's portrait of him). Herbert's aristocratic lineage allowed The Amazon to survive at the family seat, Powis Castle. But literary history abounds with mouth-watering disappeared dramas. What Faustian price would we pay to see Shakespeare and Fletcher's lost version of episodes from Don Quixote, Cardenio, turn up in a trunk? As for The Isle of Dogs, the "lewd" and "scurrilous" social satire that brought the law down like a ton of bricks on Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe in 1597, its permanent absence means that a playwright should re-write it now that the Isle hosts Canary Wharf. These days, that sounds like a job for Mark Ravenhill rather than Sir David Hare.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'