Young Turk by Moris Farhi

Love and death in a Turkish melting-pot
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The Independent Culture

The anxieties and fixations of adolescence are universal. Like teenagers today, the group of youngsters in mid-20th-century Turkey whom Moris Farhi brings to life in his latest novel are preoccupied by burgeoning sexual desires and the contradictory need to impress parents and peers. The secret rituals of growing up, the first crush, the bonds of friendship, the desire to understand and make one's mark on the world, take place against the darker canvas of Turkish and European history between 1939 and 1959.

Like the Turkish national identity he describes, Farhi's novel is a mosaic of ethnicities: Jews, Armenians, Kurds, Gypsies, Greeks, Levantines, Pomaks. The weave of voices and stories that emerges speaks of the interconnectness of fates. While their parents reconcile themselves to the betrayal of Ataturk's idealistic vision of Turkish identity, the children have their own battles.

Tubby Rifat, a convert from Judaism to Islam, is desperate to join Naim's neighbourhood gang and secretly in love with Naim's sister Gül de Taranto: a beautiful Jewish girl who has premonitions of the genocide that will sweep across Europe. Bilal and his friends hatch an ill-fated plot to save his relatives from the Nazis in Salonika. Selma has to deal with the pain of first love, and the destitution forced upon her family by the tax on Jews, Armenians and Greeks imposed in 1943. The neighbourhood rally round: Sufi musicians, wrestling champions, gypsies, all do their utmost to help their Jewish neighbours.

Farhi evokes the idealism and erotic energy of male adolescence. There are strong women here too, as driven by desire and ambition as their male counterparts. Havva the orphan circus girl is quietly relentless in her pursuit of Adem the trapeze artist. Handan is determined to be a great musician. Madame Ruj the matchmaker is a fiercely independent career woman.

Farhi's novel emphasises the solidarity and warmth of Turkish culture as well as its political shortcomings. The contradiction at its heart is that "the Turks' innate nobility tempered with the best of Islamic teaching makes them the most tolerant people in the world, while the plethora of complexes instilled by the worst of Islamic teaching could - and sometimes did - turn them into ogres". Death and desire are the two forces that forge the characters' destinies. The novel begins and ends with the spectre of death, for, as a Turkmen circus storyteller recounts, death demands courage from even the most ordinary individual. Ethical and erotic energy are inextricably intertwined; political resilience is nourished by sexual intimacy.

Poetry, especially Nazim Hikmet's verse, is a vital presence in the novel. Hikmet, perhaps Turkey's greatest 20th-century poet, was labelled a "romantic communist". Farhi has inherited that romanticism; Young Turk is infused with a passionate humanism.

Both a novel of ideas and an entertaining adventure story, this is a prodigiously researched and lyrical celebration of the multicultural heritage of Turkish history. Young Turk recounts Turkey's past, but also provides a vision of the present and future potential of Turkish national identity.

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