‘Noontime in Yenişehir’ by Sevgi Sosyal
‘Noontime in Yenişehir’ by Sevgi Soysal, translated by Amy Spangler (Milet Publishing, 280 pages, $15)
Born in Istanbul in 1936, Sevgi Soysal wrote just four novels, one book of stories and a prison memoir before she died of cancer aged 40. She is not considered among the giants of 20th century Turkish letters and is little known in English. But both Soysal and “Noontime in Yenişehir,” the only one of her novels translated into English so far, should be far better known.
The winner of Turkey’s prestigious Orhan Kemal Award in 1974, “Noontime in Yenişehir” paints a sophisticated picture of life in the capital Ankara after the middle of the 20th century. Bookended by the felling of a poplar tree in the city center, the novel drifts from one character to the next, foregoing rigid plot development in favour of an impressionistic, multi-dimensional style. Each carefully crafted chapter delves into a different character’s consciousness as they go about their day, probing sexual politics, the rural-urban divide, insecurity, machismo, honor, and the chasm between tradition and modernity.
The novel gives us a panorama of Ankara life at a particular historical moment. Internal monologues introduce us to characters from all parts of society: Middle-aged university professors, unemployed young men, young women pushed by their family to marry, streetwise gypsy shoe-shiners, idealistic teenagers, jaded civil servants, politicized students, straight-talking child prostitutes, miserly businessmen. Individuals pass each other fleetingly and set off chains of reflections that only the reader is privy to. The sense of continuous movement creates an almost cinematic effect. At one point we get the quotidian thoughts of housewife Hatice Hanım as she does her weekly shop:
“She looked at the tea biscuits which had just been put on the market. She was an attentive listener of advertising programs on the radio. She had never heard of this brand. Should she try it? Not out of nowhere she shouldn’t. If it were anything worth its salt they would have broadcast some ads. But then the packaging wasn’t bad, not at all. She looked at the price. It wasn’t any more expensive than the biscuits she usually bought.”
At times the novel almost resembles a kind of “Mrs. Dalloway” set in early 1970s Ankara. All characters have a keen sense of social class, which Soysal depicts in careful brush strokes. Generational conflict, reflected through the social and political tensions of the time, looms large. Some of the characters have come to the city as part of recent waves of migration, living in “gecekondu” shanty neighborhoods that made up over half of Ankara at the time. Few of the characters come across very flatteringly and there are plenty of petty resentments and ambitions. But even when she is scathing, Soysal remains empathetic.
Little over half way through, the novel shifts focus. From meandering between characters, the narrative settles to focus on the relationship between two politically idealistic artists Ali and Doğan, and the latter’s sister Olcay. Perhaps the most memorable scene in the book depicts their student film group pompously critiquing popular cinema. Doğan – fond of wearing corduroy pants, a turtleneck sweater and smoking a pipe – opines on what his own film means before the narrator concludes: “The truth is, he was making it all up as he went along.”
The translator Amy Spangler has to grapple with the novel’s wide range of vernacular dialects, styles of speech, and social classes. She does a deft job, capturing the color of the original without being obtrusive. “Noontime in Yenişehir” is essentially a time capsule of early 1970s Ankara, but there is something universal and timeless about the everyday human stories and emotions it depicts. Ankara is hardly the most literary or inspiring of cities, but “Noontime in Yenişehir” is a literary monument that deserves to be more widely read in Turkey and elsewhere.