The Muse of Mardin
"Literature was long seen as a substitute for politics in Turkey. Literature was loved and popular in the service of politics."
The words belong to Murathan Mungan. Mungan is a cult author in Turkey, every bit as well known and successful as Orhan Pamuk. He is not only a writer of literature and song lyrics – entire CDs have even been dedicated to him. Hardly a day passes without enthusiastic fans posting messages on his website guestbook. "I studied literature, but it is you who taught me what literature really is," writes one reader.
Mungan's roots are in theatre. For many years he worked as a dramatic adviser for state theatres in Ankara and later in Istanbul, his breakthrough as playwright coming in the 1980s. Even at that time, in his "Mesopotamian Trilogy" (Mezopotamya Üçlemesi), he was already working with material gleaned from the world of Anatolian myth, a source from which he continually draws. It can make the context of his stories seem rather difficult to Western readers to begin with.
Memory of the East
"I feel naked when I am in the West," says the author at a reading in Germany. "The masters who have written before me are absent here, the shadow they cast over me is missing." Mungan's source material is mined from the rich seams of Arab, Kurdish and Alevi legends and songs, which he works into literature. "Memory of the East" is the name the writer gives to this centuries old wealth of traditional culture.
Despite the traditional nature of his sources, Mungan instils a modern individuality into his characters. They experience existential situations, are confronted by their own limitations, encounter fear and other emotions and are aware of their identity.
Born in Istanbul in 1955, Mungan grew up in the city of Mardin in southeastern Anatolia. The easy mix of Muslims, orthodox Christians, Aramaeans and Yazidi in Mardin instilled in him a sort of instinctive sense of the rudiments of democracy, he would later write of his childhood.
Multilingual Ottoman inheritance
Mungan himself comes from a respected Arab-Kurdish family on his father's side, its roots traceable back to the Ottoman era. The southeastern Anatolian city of Mardin, close to the Syrian border, was once part of ancient Mesopotamia and even today the evidence of the patchwork of various peoples and religions it has provided home to is clearly visible.
Interest in the multiethnic and multilingual Ottoman inheritance is a central interest in contemporary Turkish literature. Elif Shafak, for example, deliberately makes use of "obsolete" or long-forgotten words and expressions. She selects those Arabic and Persian words which the "Society for Turkish Language" has chosen to replace with Turkish words. This state proscription of language and its concomitant cultural purification is being opposed by contemporary writers, Mungan amongst them.
His first collection of poetry "Osmanlıya Dair Hikâyât" (Stories of the Ottomans) takes both its thematic and linguistic orientation from the Ottoman period. Another short story of his features a story that deals with events at the time of the mysterious death of Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople. In it, the narrator calls into question the official version of events surrounding the enigmatic death of the Sultan.
The historians charted the past in the image of their own present. They brought together half-buried, distorted, scattered pieces of events and reassembled them – without knowing their importance in a world of fear, rumour and superstition. Such is the way of historian – sketching out the panorama from their own point of view, whenever they look into the past. The chart onto which we throw our dice, however, knows that history is born of the imagination.
This could be read as a rejection of the official schoolbook version of the history of the Turkish Republic.
Mungan stands apart in other ways too. It is not only his themes and his Kurdish-Arab roots that make him something of an unconventional figure. Mungan is homosexual and speaks openly about it. Like his characters, he too has an abrasive approach to taboos, and an outsider's regard for social norms and conventions.
When a journalist asked Mungan if he was a homosexual, the writer responded by saying that he was not homosexual, he was gay. Homosexuality, he said, was merely a description of sexual orientation, gay was a lifestyle statement. However he has deliberately chosen not to use the gay tag as a marketing ploy for his writing.
Mungan's public persona, to which a certain colouring of eccentricity can be said to contribute, is difficult to separate from his creative work. "I am a performance author, I become the characters I create. Anybody watching me with a hidden camera while I was writing would think me mad," the author confesses.
So far, none of Mungan's novels are available in English. A pity, it has to be said. It really is high time that the writer achieved wider international recognition.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Ron Walker