Few can forget the huge manhunt that was launched in İstanbul in January to find missing American tourist Sarai Sierra. US officials joined Turkish police forces in combing hours of security camera footage and interviewing hundreds of people who may have seen her.
The Turkish media’s response matched that of Turkish citizens: On the one hand, they were pleased and proud to see so many resources being focused on trying to locate a missing woman who, if still alive, could be in grave danger, but on the other, it was bittersweet to consider how many people go missing every day in Turkey without such a concerted effort to find them.
Of course, in such situations, the greatest grief is borne by family and friends. Not knowing what has happened to their loved one, their imagination can range from every horrific possibility. Even the finding of a body in such a circumstance is a relief since it can help to bring closure and the certain knowledge that your beloved child, sibling or parent is no longer suffering.
The Sierra case brought Turkish civil society organization Association for Families with Missing Relatives (YAKAD) into the spotlight. This wonderful charity seeks to help find missing people and they have a good success rate. YAKAD was founded by a father after the tragic disappearance of his son. His other son is now the president of the association.
YAKAD has a lot of good things to say about the progress in helping families find their missing loved ones. However they point out that there are serious failings in the system of coordination between the police, hospitals and funeral services, which lead to many hundreds of missing people cases remaining unsolved.
Rather than complain about the seemingly disproportionate effort expended on tracing Sierra when compared with the average Turkish citizen, YAKAD won the respect and admiration of us all by joining in the search for the tourist. In so doing they turned the spotlight on Turkish missing persons’ cases. Their aim was simply to help another family hopefully be reunited, or at least reach closure. They understand the burning, searing pain involved.
Quests for missing persons form the main plot of “Many and Many a Year Ago,” a 2008 novel by Turkish author Selçuk Altun, which has been translated into English and published by Telegram Books. Literature buffs will recognize the title as a line from the poem “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe.
In this moving poem, the poet is longing for his childhood love and bride whom he lost to “a wind [that] came out of the cloud by night” -- she now lies in a sepulcher by the sea; like all those who have lost someone dear to them, he never ceases to think of his beautiful Annabel Lee. The emotion is raw and the pain is real. Annabel Lee may have been dead for many and many a year, but the agony of her loss is still living.
In Altun’s novel, the first loss occurs to our hero who became the youngest F16 pilot in the Turkish Air Force. His is a true success story fit to make his father proud. Ever since he was a young child, Kemal had been in love with the idea of flying since his father would encourage him towards this ambition with comments such as “no music is more profound than the sky-shattering roar of a plane flying at 15,000 feet at twice the speed of sound.”
Kemal expresses the exhilaration of his love as he explains that flying “at 12,000 feet I felt I’d been spirited away from the world’s filth and had reached the outskirts of divine tranquility where I could embrace eternity.” Through his many successes he had distinguished himself, so much so that “soon I accepted as normal when people around me singled me out as the future commander of the Air Force.”
This meteoric rise comes to an abrupt end with his very first failure in life: not his, but the failure of his F16 engine. Crash landing, he suffers post-traumatic stress and is invalided out of the Air Force, losing his true love.
This begins a strange series of adventures, kick started by the so-called twin brother of a young colleague he had met briefly in the Air Force. A benefactor provides him with finances and a series of mysteries of disappeared persons to be solved.
“Many and Many a Year Ago” is part mystery, as Kemal follows up on a series of clues starting from where each person was last seen, and part tale within a tale as we discover the life story of many other characters. The former is exciting and interesting. Although often aware that Kemal is on a seemingly wild goose chase following up some items that will probably turn out to be red herrings, the trail is enjoyable. In Anatolia we travel with him to Eskişehir, to the Aegean coast and finally along the Black Sea. His second adventure even sees us accompanying him to Argentina.
The style of the latter is like Scheherazade in “One Thousand and One Nights.” Each life story is narrated by an individual who knew the hero or heroine of the story. The tales take up several pages and have many characters. They confuse and dazzle with a myriad of characters paraded before readers’ eyes. In some cases it is hard to keep track of the story and see how all of the threads will fit together.
Following the first of these narrations, told by Fuat about his twin Suat, Kemal remarks, “I was exhausted by this tirade.” This echoed my feelings entirely, for the tale was more than a bit convoluted. Eventually I become used to the style and recognized the beginning of a story when it appears in the middle of the action. Towards the end, one story is narrated not in person but is found in a diary. Kemal here says, “I must confess that the characters whom I encountered in the passages I hastily read grew on me.” If you persevere with the mixed style, you are likely to agree with this too.
The final chapter, at Poe’s graveside, reveals to us that this is indeed, after all, a novel within a novel. But the underlying mystery -- who is the benefactor and why is he pulling Kemal’s strings in this way -- remains hidden.
Ultimately, the reason why this novel is less satisfying than Altun’s other works is the lack of the deep emotion that accompanies a missing person’s case. There is no agony in the description of how a loved one went missing. There is no deep longing in the relating of their life story. There is no clutching at straws, hoping against all odds that Kemal will be able to find the one they are talking about. There is no desperate urging Kemal on to find the missing individual and no begging him to come back and give them closure once he has found out what happened.
In “Many and Many a Year Ago,” Altun engages your interest and provides a fascinating story for your mind, but unlike Poe in Annabel Lee, he fails to move your heart.
“Many and Many a Year Ago,” by Selçuk Altun, published by Telegram Books (2009) 7.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-184659067-2 Rating: Three stars out of five