‘The Stone Building and Other Places’ by Aslı Erdoğan
‘The Stone Building and Other Places’ by Aslı Erdoğan, translated by Sevinç Türkkan (City Lights Books, 128 pages)
Turkish novelist Aslı Erdoğan was released from pre-trial detention in December 2016 after spending 133 days in jail. She had been arrested and charged under Article 302 of the Turkish Penal Code: Disrupting the unity and integrity of the state. The charges were brought as she was a member of the advisory board of Özgür Gündem, a newspaper since shuttered over links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The case of Erdoğan (who is unrelated to the country’s president) became a notorious symbol of rights violations in contemporary Turkey – where over 150 journalists, writers and media members remain behind bars. It also brought her to new prominence, with profiles in the New York Times and invites to award ceremonies across Europe.
During her hearing at court last year Erdoğan fainted in front of the judge. She was then held in solitary confinement for the next 10 days, two of which were without water. Her prison bed smelled of urine and after her release Erdoğan was initially banned from traveling abroad. Upon leaving jail she did not return to her home – which had been ransacked by police - for many months.
Such details almost resemble something out of one of the macabre stories from “The Stone Building and Other Places.” The book is the second to appear in English after “The City in a Crimson Cloak,” a novel set in the backstreets of Rio de Janeiro, where Erdoğan lived while studying for a doctorate in Physics. “The Stone Building” is murkier and perhaps more representative of Erdoğan’s work, winning the Sait Faik Short Story Award in 2010.
The book strings together a sequence of seven short stories, thematically and atmospherically linked, full of shadows, chill winds, suffering and isolation. The New York Times profile described the prevailing theme of Erdoğan’s work as being “the brokenness of human beings.” That is certainly clear from “The Stone Building,” where dreams project characters’ mental anxieties, and where prison and the outside world seem to interchange fluidly.
In “The Prisoner,” the central character’s thoughts on childbirth are representatively gloomy: “She had condemned someone else, her own child, to life, knowing too well she would be unable to protect it, neither from the truths of life and death, nor from their lies.” In the title story, prison and the outside world become confusingly mixed in a strange, impressionistic prose poem. “Betraying, we were betrayed by fate, by remaining alive, by living; by winning the sole, the one terrible victory, we were defeated forever,” writes the traumatized narrator.
Erdoğan shot to international prominence with a political case against her last year, but in her fiction there is little social or historical context. The tales in “The Stone Building” are cerebral, austere and intensely personal, following an internal logic that the reader must work hard to enter. Erdoğan has commented on how publishers overseas often do not know how to market her, asking: “Why don’t you write us about your own little village?” They would likely be disappointed by the robustly context-less nature of “The Stone Building.”
The travel ban imposed on Erdoğan was lifted earlier this year and she has since attended a number of literary events in Europe. Many in attendance at those events will have been more interested in her political pronouncements than her literary work, which is unlikely to satisfy readers of translated literature looking for “insights about Turkey.” But claustrophobic, unsettling, pessimistic visions may actually be most fitting in the country’s current situation.