The Book of Istanbul
Edited by Jim Hinks and Gul Turner

Comma Press

"Leaving aside the silvery shimmering of pain, people who make themselves important through their suffering nauseate me. I am scared of someone who immediately begins to talk about his suffering before giving one a chance to read his soul through the lines on his face. As if I were deemed responsible for binding his wounds."

Reviewed by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau

Comma Press describes its first Turkish anthology as a "new kind of guide" to Istanbul. I’d say that’s about right, with one caveat: If what you’re after is a cultural expedition, an exotic tour of the city where East literally meets West, this may not necessarily be what you’d expect. Don’t get me wrong—the 10 stories included in the collection, written by some of Turkey’s leading authors, do give us a colorful peek at life in Istanbul, from its congested streets, to its sliver of sea spotted with oil stains that "glisten in the seven colors of the sun," to its shores that, at first hint of nice weather, are flooded with folks who "turn the area into a fairground, with their fishing lines, picnic baskets and baby buggies."

But as much as it is an exploration of place, The Book of Istanbul is really an exploration of identity. Just as the city finds itself at the crossroads of two continents, so do the book’s characters find themselves at some sort of existential crossroads, where one step in any direction would invariably lead to something lost.

In Türker Armaner’s The Well, for instance, a man "interrogated" for his independent ideas by a former lover and so-called "friends" is tormented by two possibilities: that his persecution is real, or that it’s all in his head.

In Müge İplikçi’s A Question, the protagonist—prohibited from wearing the hijab in campus, among other things—struggles between upholding her faith and pursuing her dream of a better future, both of which leave her wondering: What happens next?

And in Gönül Kıvılcım’s Out of Reach, a female servant defies the "rules" of society and falls in love with her mistress’s son—only to find that love itself had its own rules.

Like in any collection, some stories stood out to this reader more than others. One is Mehmet Zaman Saçlıoğlu’s The Intersection, wherein a homeless man takes matters into his own hands and starts directing traffic at "the most treacherous of the intersections" without any thought of getting paid. Is he really mad, or is it madness to think that one has to be crazy to do good without expecting anything in return? Another is Özen Yula’s A Panther, which follows the story of a zoo animal made violent by the desire to go back to the only place it knows as "home"—the jungle. One gets the impression that while Yula is telling the panther’s tale, she’s really shining a light on a much bigger issue. In this case, the crisis in Turkey’s close neighbor, Iraq. Our idea of "home" and "security." And, how we lose all "humanity" when we resort to violence, even as a means of self-defense.

Indeed, reading the stories in The Book of Istanbul is like looking at "fingers pointing to the moon". The stories themselves are often metaphors for something else. And while the authors included here each have a unique voice and perspective of the city, their writing styles do share a common trait—the tendency to be poetic, philosophical and, as editor Jim Hinks notes in his introduction, to "adroitly step from one subject to another and back again all within the same sentence."

For all the above reasons, a reader short on time or who’s simply looking for some light fare may find the book dense and rambling, and may miss out on the best it has to offer. But if you’re willing to sit down, to read carefully and to patiently unravel layer by layer, The Book of Istanbul could be one of those soul-searching trips that stick with you. It could make your view of Istanbul, and Turkish writing in general, just a little bit richer.

Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau  wants to explore the world by foot, pen and lens. Raised in Manila, she lived for a time in Los Angeles before moving to France. A Pushcart Prize nominee and 2008 Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition finalist, she has stories in places like the Humanist and Southword.

Michelle's other Short Reviews: Matty Stansfield "Donut Holes: Sticky Pieces of Fictionalized Reality"

Stephen Shieber "Being Normal"

"Discovering a Comet and More Microfiction" by Various

Sefi Atta "News from Home"

The Penguin Book of New Zealand Contemporary Stories

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Authors: Türker Armaner, Murat Gülsoy, Nedim Gürsel,  Muge Iplikci, Karin Karakasli, Sema Kaygusuz, Gönül Kivilcim, Mario Levi, Özen Yula, Mehmet Zaman Saçlioglu

Editors  Jim Hinks has worked at Comma Press since 2005, when he helped set up Comma’s translation imprint, with the remit of bringing the best foreign short fiction to an English-reading audience. He’s the editor of Brace: A new Generation in Short Fiction and ReBerth: Stories from Cities on the Edge.

Gul Turner was born in Istanbul. After graduating in Journalism and Public Relations, she completed a Masters in Marketing and then worked as a cultural correspondent in Milliyet newspaper and as a Communication and Marketing Manager in Dogan Books.