A Turkish Hero of Our Time

image

Kaya Genç on Mehmet Murat Somer’s “Turkish Delight” Series

Computer programmers with an expertise of baroque music are not among the most popular protagonists of Turkish literature. And Turkish novels, for that matter, are not usually dominated by transvestite detectives who work at special clubs at night and do kickboxing the first thing in the morning. But maybe that is to be expected in a country where transgendered persons are often victims of hate crimes; rather than, like Burçak Veral, the protagonist of Turkish novelist Mehmet Murat Somer’s six volume long “Turkish Delight” mystery series, the sleuth who solves them.

Veral listens to Satie’s “Gnossiennes” to ease his mind polluted by the demands of the philistine and macho customers of his club and the memories of murdered transvestites who work for him. An intellectual who describes his stream of consciousness with the odd scholarly reference to Natalie Sarraute, Veral sips his fennel tea at home, and adores two international stars more than anyone else: Audrey Hepburn, whose chic style he imitates in his own life; and the Colt Studio model John Pruitt, whose stained boxer shorts Veral bids on in an auction to show his appreciation of Pruitt’s muscular physique. 

What makes Turkish Delight mysteries so delightful to read is not a surreal representation of Turkey, or, for that matter, a Turkified adaptation of hysterical realism. On the contrary, the series is intensely realistic. Yes, realistic: unlike many serious, realist Turkish novels of big ideas, which are filled to the brim with culturally and politically loaded characters representing what they suppose to be the country’s divided soul, Somer’s seemingly frivolous and light fictions expose the eccentric, and awesomely weird nature of Turkey in all its strangeness. They are, also, roman-à-clefs where numerous Turkish intellectuals, authors and artists parade in scenes depicting Istanbul’s bohemian quarters. As I finished the fourth volume in an Istanbul cafe last month, I had no doubt that the world Somer has been meticulously describing in the series for my reading pleasure was authentic and “Made in Turkey—one hundred percent!” as we say here, for local products. 

Somer does a fine job of painting a portrait of a country that can be very hypocritical when it comes to issues of sexuality and morality. Men and women here say one thing and do another; they desperately want to realize their fantasies but feel obliged to repress and hide them when the moment of taking action arrives.

Somer gently brings us into this world of sexual opportunities and repression. Gigolo Murders opens with the morning ritual of the sleuth: he enjoys his morning coffee (“mind you, what I call ‘morning’ is what ordinary people refer to as 'the afternoon’”) while looking at the paper. The title of a story on the third page hits him like a slap in the face: “Transvestite Burned to Death”. This is how the grim realities of the country make their first appearance:

I got a sour taste in my mouth. Naturally, it affected the flavor of my coffee: the last mouthful was distinctly bitter. Putting down my cup, I concentrated on reading the article. Bad news about our girls always gets me down. Not all of them enjoy a life of leisure like me. Some of them make a living out on the streets. It can make them tough and hostile.

Veral’s world is divided into two halves. On one half, he is a respected computer programmer who makes sure that companies get the best security for their websites. He is paid handsomely for his services and can be said to represent Istanbul’s geeky, millennial community. And on the other, Veral’s life is haunted by murderers and homophobic brutes. In order to solve crimes committed against his friends, Veral has to deal with crippled computer hackers, brainless and benevolent bodyguards, sex-hungry taxi drivers and desperate female journalists keen on fucking gay men. 

The queen of mystery might not have enjoyed the comparison, but Veral’s world of fantastic sex and deplorable crimes resembles Agatha Christie’s Marple and Poirot series, to which there are numerous references in the four books. Like in Christie, there’s a cast of recurring characters: Burçak Veral the detective who enjoys listening to Handel while dressed in a leather outfit; his childhood friend, Selçuk Tayanç, who works as department director for the police; Ponpon, a transvestite drag star; Hüseyin, the taxi driver who has a massive crush on him; the cleaning lady Satı, who destroys our hero’s peace of mind by washing his keyboard with extreme amounts of soapy water, and who makes somewhat distressing sounds while cleaning the floor with the hoover. 

The Prophet Murders, the first (and my favorite) installment in the series, mostly takes place in online chat rooms and in the apartments of Turks who inhabit those rooms. When a psychopath starts killing Istanbul transvestites who share names with holy prophets, Veral decides to put an end to the violence. He successfully locates the address of Cihad2000, the avatar of a wheel-chaired young man with Edward Snowden-like computer skills, and a habit of leaving nasty, homophobic messages on internet chat rooms. Is this the murderer? He turns out to be an innocent closet homosexual and Veral strategically convinces him into an S&M relationship from which he gains invaluable information about Istanbul’s homophobes, the potential killers of his friends. 

In Kiss Murders the social encounters between the city’s serving classes (taxi drivers, bodyguards, waiters) and its urban professionals is meticulously depicted. Veral hates his fellow Turks address him as “sen” (second personal singular) and asks to be addressed properly, as “siz” (second person plural). He sees himself as a sophisticated, cultured, grand lady struggling to survive in a difficult and violent environment. As new murders are committed he proves, with his actions, that the lady is not for turning: he will not forgive those who do evil on his friends and colleagues. Observing his great detective skills, the reader decides that Veral deserves the privileged treatment he demands from others. And it is precisely his sense of solidarity towards the city’s marginalized people that makes Veral a Turkish super-hero of sorts. 

Somer described the villains of the second volume, The Kiss Murder, as “radical nationalists and their political party”. Presenting the competing discourses of discriminatory politicians and the marginalized voices together, Somer shows some of the underlying factors in hate crimes. A massive gap exists between the public and private faces of Istanbul’s citizens; one reminiscent of the conservative Britain in the 1980s when people were increasingly led into leading double lives (Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty offers the best dissection of it), when the public discourse failed to catch up with the realities of the private sphere—people saying one thing, and doing another in private. While many Turkish novels gives us only the world of appearances of Turkish people, Somer brings us into the Platonic cave where they freely express and experience their desires.

The guessing game of the third volume, The Gigolo Murder consists of trying to find out whether the extremely wealthy family depicted as the main suspects of a murder investigation (the victim is a minibus driver with a legendary body) was based on an actual Turkish family. The Serenity Murder, the last volume to be translated into English, is the most metafictional of the series. It begins with a television show about the Turkish Delight series. Veral appears in the program alongside an author named Mehmet Murat Somer. During the program a viewer calls in and promises to off Veral’s friends one by one. The amateur detective has to act quickly to avoid murders from taking place. Meanwhile Mehmet Murat Somer, a rather frightened figure, curtails his visit to Istanbul and takes the first flight back to Rio de Janeiro, where he (and the author himself) spends half of the year.

“When the books were first published in Turkey, some of my friends thought that I was a drag queen or transgender,” Somer told the Guardian’s Chris Wiegand in 2008. “In fact I’m not—sorry to disappoint… Not only in Turkey, but in many countries, transgender people are presented in a way that I don’t like at all. They are either slapstick, half-brained characters to be laughed at, or people with no moral values. My aim with the books was to do what Pedro Almodóvar does—turn the negatives into positives.”

This is a noble and playful aim which may be said to produce a set of books which are addictive, in the way Zadie Smith found Knausgaard's My Struggle addictive. You can’t help but wonder how Somer manages to write so calmly about this frantic world and how we, the inhabitants of Istanbul, can live so calmly in the frantic city that has inspired his fictions.

Kaya Genç is writing a history of Turkish literature for Harvard University Press. The House on Arundel Street, his first English novel, is looking for a home. He blogs at kayagenc.net and tweets @kayagenc