Laugh or Lament? Selected Short Stories of Aziz Nesin
William Armstrong - email@example.com‘Laugh or Lament: Selected Short Stories’ by Aziz Nesin (Nesin Yayınevi, pp 280, 12TL, 2006)
It could be said that any Turkish writer worth his or her salt over the 20th century must at some point have experienced some kind of run in with the state authorities. That Aziz Nesin was no different may come as a surprise to the reader of “Laugh or Lament,” as it is a collection of short stories that demonstrates an apparently unaffiliated writer. In the best satirical tradition, he was unallied to anything but the broadest political ideals. Uncorrupted by any since-discredited ideology, he was keenest simply to point out absurdity wherever he found it. In some environments however, even neutrality can be dangerous.
Born in Istanbul in 1915, Nesin cut his teeth writing and editing journals during the early republican era, but was jailed on several occasions and placed under surveillance by the Turkish National Security Service. Later on, he was present at the notorious incident in the Central Anatolian town of Sivas in July 1993, when the Madımak Hotel was torched by a mass gathering of Islamic fundamentalists during its hosting of an Alevi cultural festival, leading to the deaths of 37 attendees. At the time, Nesin was engaged in the delicate task of translating Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” into Turkish, but – rather like an unfortunate character in one of his own stories - the negative attention that this attracted meant he never completed the work, and that novel has still never been printed in Turkish.
The 22 (often very) short stories included in “Laugh or Lament” are aphoristic, occasionally whimsical, and occasionally very funny. They take aim at typical satirical targets, skewering the absurdity of everyday hypocrisy (“A Stray Dog Named Tarzan”), official corruption and incompetence (“Corruption Unlimited”; “Precious Public Funds”), the dehumanizing effect of excessive bureaucracy (“I Am Sorry”; “What a Difference”), and the endemic paranoia about foreigners and “government secrets.” All pose that central question to the reader: Do you laugh, or lament? Of course, the best satire should always provoke the reader to do both, and at his sharpest that’s exactly what Nesin achieves. His stories are not laugh out loud funny, but almost all showcase a wry, puckish sense of humor, well matched to his subjects. A couple of them touch on the issue of freedom of expression – or lack of it – and Nesin would be disappointed to hear that they still feel uncomfortably germane in today’s Turkey.
Unlike one might expect however, there is no empty sentimentalizing of that anonymous collective “the people”; in fact, the satire often shows “the people” to be their own worst enemies. One grimly comic story is narrated by a man who – due to the shoddiness of his surroundings - can’t even succeed in committing suicide and, on top of being denied a comfortable life, is thus even denied “a comfortable death.”
“Laugh or Lament” is not an unqualified success. Nesin was also fond of almost fairy tale-like fables, and a few of these are unfortunately included here. They tend to forego the light, wryly amused note that came so naturally to him, and end up feeling only flat and superficial. Lamentable too (ouch), is the far from faultless translation, which is full of inconsequential but regular grammatical mistakes.
This volume is just a tiny selection of the over 2,000 stories that Nesin published throughout his life, and it may even be the only English volume yet published. I suspect this is likely to remain the case, as there probably isn’t the international interest to warrant further translations. That is a shame, though, as his stories certainly do deserve a wider readership.
Recommended recent release
‘The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths‘ by John Gray
(Allen Lane, 40TL, pp 240)