It’s a crime not to protect İstanbul’s history

It’s a crime not to  protect İstanbul’s history

Ahmet Ümit, relatively little known overseas, is one of Turkey’s most popular novelists with over 18 successful titles to his name. (PHOTO ZAMAN, BAHAR MANDAN)

April 15, 2012, Sunday/ 13:56:00

For a long time I have wondered why Ahmet Ümit’s novels are not widely available in English. One of Turkey’s most popular novelists with over 18 successful titles to his name, he is also responsible for a number of popular television series and films.

He can rightfully be called the master of the Turkish thriller, and his latest novel published this week, “Sultanı Öldürmek,” (To Kill the Sultan) created a great buzz when it hit bookstores.

But Ümit is relatively little known outside of Turkey, his books having mainly been translated into German, presumably aimed at the large Turkish population in Germany. This error is finally being rectified as Everest publishes some of his most popular titles in English.

Ask a European to name a Turkish author and almost exclusively the only name they will reply is Orhan Pamuk. Some may also mention Elif Şafak (who prefers to spell her surname Shafak when translated into English), Yaşar Kemal or Nazım Hikmet. Few will name any others.

Of course, the Nobel Prize has contributed hugely to Pamuk’s recognition factor, but it is time that a wider range of authors, from different genres, were translated into English to reach a wider audience. Just browsing the shelves of an English language bookstore, in particular the best-sellers section, is sufficient to make it clear that popular fiction tends not so much to be from the literary or memoir genre (à la Pamuk) but from the romance genre and thriller genre.

With the great opportunity to be afforded to Turkey as Market Focus country at next year’s London Book Fair, now is the time for Turkish publishers to translate not just the best they have of the literary school, but also outstanding examples of Turkish romances, chick lit and thrillers. And for thriller writers, they don’t come much better than Ahmet Ümit.

“A Memento for İstanbul” is an exciting chase in two dimensions around this jewel of a city. The first dimension is a tour in the dimension of space: Seven bodies are found in the city in seven days and the investigation takes us from one historical spot in the old city to another. The orientation of the corpse, laid out like an arrow with the legs splayed and the arms outstretched with the hands forming a point, is the only clue as to whether the next location lies to the north, south, east or west of the current atrocity.

But the delight of the novel to İstanbul-lovers is the tour in the historical dimension of time. The blurb on the back cover promises that Ümit draws on “the unique political and historical background of his country” and the reader is taken on a potted history tour, with each murder representing a highlight in the rich history of the city.

The corpses are left at sites which in chronological order reflect a key era or ruler in the long pageant from Byzantium to Constantinople to İstanbul. Just in case the historical reference might be missed, the serial killer (or killers) ensures they leave a valuable coin from the period in question tucked into the palm of their victim.

All good murder mystery thrillers need crack police officers to investigate them. In a departure from the usual detective duo, Ümit gives us a loveable trio whose inter-team dynamics work extremely well. Detective Chief Inspector Nevzat Akman of the İstanbul police is an immensely delightful character. Sympathetic, with deep understanding of human nature and a kindly disposition, the reader warms to him straight away. Like Britain’s Inspector Lewis (who started his career as sergeant to one of the most famous modern cops, Morse) he has been through a tragic bereavement; perhaps it is this that has made him the man that he is.

Akman’s male assistant Ali is variously described as “a Doberman,” “a bull in a china shop” and other boorish epithets. Not all bad, his role is as bad cop to Akman’s good cop, enabling the story to progress at times when a witness would be otherwise reluctant to help us all with clues.

This is more modern policing than Barbara Nadel’s İkmen novels. Our police heroes are equally at home in the laboratory as they are out questioning witnesses or staking out a suspected crime scene. The final member of the trio, Zeynep, has the skills of Abby in NCIS, and she is as likely to be found running a test on evidence as she is to be out collecting the evidence itself.

Very quickly it becomes apparent that all of the victims have more than a little to do with construction projects that destroy or threaten to destroy the archeological heritage of the old city. An archaeologist, a city planner, an architect, an ex-deputy mayor … all men whose signatures had been on documents that were the death warrant for a piece of İstanbul’s history.

Seeing as the city couldn’t have taken its own revenge on men who had changed once they came into contact with money, suspicion turns on a society that exists to protest just such building projects. The female director of the Topkapı Palace museum, although connected both to the first victim and to this society through romantic relationships, assists Akman in understanding the history involved.

Like all good tense thrillers, suspicion swings back and forth like a pendulum between the director and the society on one side, and the remaining living members of the construction and development empire on the other. It is a mystery that will keep you guessing until the very final chapter!

Unlike “İstanbul: Memories and the City,” Pamuk’s famous tribute to his hometown, “A Memento for İstanbul” is a celebration of a living and vibrant city. There is little hint of melancholy here. Unusually for a detective novel, it is narrated in the first person by the detective chief inspector, which lends interesting insight into the process of uncovering the truth. It also enables us to see İstanbul through the eyes of a man who loves it. He speaks of “the good old days, the İstanbul of my childhood” and the story is peppered with characters who equally express a love and pride for İstanbul.

It is full of humor as well, using the traditional Shakespearean technique of interspersing a comic interlude at a point when the tension could just become too high. For instance, as our dynamic trio explores the home of the first victim, they are forced to pull their guns for protection as they hear a suspicious voice in a dark room. We and they let out a big sigh of relief to discover it is just a parrot who has been taught to greet visitors with a loud screech and the words, “My name is King Byzas, welcome to my palace!”

But sadly, and most frustratingly for the reader, Ümit and his excellent translator are let down by editors and proof-readers. Mistakes interrupt the flow -- I counted nearly 20 typos such as “you’ll found” (instead of “you’ll find”), “there was turning back” (“no” missing), “make her belief” (“believe”) and “no to worry” (“not to worry”). Similarly irritating are the myriad line-breaks in the wrong place, splitting syllables, such as everyt-hing and an-ybody. Please, Everest, avoid these crimes against the English language in future editions!

Perhaps the greatest crime uncovered by Akman and his team is the realization that they, like most Turks, know very little about the history of their precious and prized city. “It was dire, an embarrassing admission. We knew next to nothing about the history of our own city, our own hometown. Forget the Greeks and Romans; we were just as clueless when it came to the Ottomans, and yet, despite knowing absolutely nothing about them or their history, we loved to brag and boast about the ‘heroic exploits’ of our forefathers.”

This crime is rectified and more than atoned for in this thrilling İstanbul mystery.


“A Memento for İstanbul,” by Ahmet Ümit, published by Everest (December 2011). TL 25 in paperback ISBN: 978-975289954-4

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