This year, the Turkish Olympiads, which have just come to a glittering conclusion, can hardly fail to have been noticed around the country.
In previous years, the gathering together of children and youth from around the world to compete in various events that demonstrate their mastery of the Turkish language seemed to be a more shy affair, with only those close to the events knowing anything about it.
But this year there were posters all over İstanbul showing smiling faces from around the world with the Turkish strapline “Come, let’s get to know each other.” The contestants were also involved in an amazing tour around the country, performing in cultural activities in many cities in Anatolia, giving the whole of Turkey an opportunity to see children of many colors speaking Turkish, singing and reciting poems (sometimes better than many children who have Turkish citizenship!).
English may be the international language of business, and Chinese may be the most spoken language in the world, but many would say that the universal language that brings the world together is the language of love. By focusing on children and youth and celebrating different cultures too -- at most of the shows the children were dressed in their stunning national costumes -- the winners at the Turkish Olympiads were not just the kids who got medals, but the Turkish language and also the ideals of love and understanding between cultures.
Particularly striking was the report in Today’s Zaman of a young Korean girl who presented her medal to a Turkish veteran hero of the Korean War.
Any project that aims to share culture plays its part in promoting racial harmony and peace and understanding. Concepts that in our modern multicultural societies must move from being far-off ideals to being daily realities if inner-city violence, rioting and racially motivated crime are to be driven off our streets. I grew up in South London and was in middle school during the time of the Brixton riots, so I experienced this first hand as a young teenager.
The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism has a number of important projects aimed at widening the knowledge and understanding of Turkey and Turkish culture across Europe. One is the TEDA Project -- a fund to assist in the translation of Turkish literature. Since the project started in 2005, 51 publishers have received funding for some 900 books to be translated and published.
Hotel Bosphorus,” the first of three Kati Hirschel murder mysteries by Esmahan Aykol, I saw that it had been translated and published with the help of the Arts Council (which also sponsored the massively successful film “The King’s Speech”) and the TEDA Project. That set me thinking; I wonder what the criteria are for choosing a book to represent Turkish literature in the international arena.
I guess each of the young people chosen to represent their country in the Turkish Olympiads went through some sort of selection process to make sure they were the best in their field. Googling Turkish Olympiads I discovered a whole host of regional and national competitions (from southwest US to Xinjiang in China) that must have been part of the selection, a bit like the Miss World competition, where each of the beauties had previously won their own national competition.
I was reminded of the sad story my nephew told me about one of his friends who is an amazing swimmer. At just 20, he now no longer goes in a pool. He is disillusioned and disappointed that after devoting his teenage years to getting up at the crack of dawn every day to train hard before school, every year he just missed qualifying for the national squad. If they took 10 swimmers, he would rank as the 11th best in the country. If they were accepting eight, he would be the ninth best. Continually missing out on selection by a whisker this young lad, who could swim twice as fast as his school friends, viewed himself as a failure.
“Hotel Bosphorus,” although certainly not the best book written in Turkish, certainly is a great choice for TEDA funding. It has commercial appeal. Firstly, it is immensely readable. Published in Turkish under the title “The Bookshop,” it is a lively murder mystery in the traditional genre. Hirschel has a boutique bookstore in the Küledibi area of Galata, selling just detective fiction. When her old school buddy comes to İstanbul to star in a film, and the German co-director is murdered, Kati’s German friend is the chief suspect. Who better than a lover of detective fiction to turn amateur sleuth to clear her friend’s name?
Secondly, Aykol is a well-known name in Germany. Born in Edirne, she divides her time between Berlin and İstanbul. In actual fact, English is the eighth language that Kati’s adventures have been translated into. The book was a popular seller in Germany.
Thirdly, with its heroine being a German living in İstanbul, the story is packed full of 101 small insights into Turkish and German culture. Every İstanbul resident will smile at Kati’s frustration on the very first page as she tries unsuccessfully to find a parking space in Küledibi. The Turkish penchant for gossip, a Turk’s inability to live for more than a few minutes away from their cell phone, their prejudices that Germans are all cold and unsmiling are sprinkled throughout the book in between observations on German meticulousness, loud behavior in a bar and Kati’s brother’s total unconcern that his elderly mother has broken an ankle. “You’ve lived over there too long,” he tells Kati when she insists on flying over to see how her mom is.
“Hotel Bosphorus” is narrated in the first person, so we get inside Kati’s mind, and what a chatty mind she has! It is as if we have joined her for her weekly rendezvous with Yılmaz at a local café on Saturday morning, and she is telling us the story in all its details, sparing us no opinion or comment that would enliven the telling of it. “After reviewing all of these possibilities [which took about a page and a half] I came to the conclusion that my thought processes were getting me nowhere.”
There is some tension in Petra, the film star, like she has lost something. But as Kati begins to get involved romantically with homicide detective Batuhan from the Ortaköy Police Station she discovers that the Turkish co-director had been released from jail in a recent amnesty. This gangland boss has a brother who looks after the drug side of the business. Also a friend of the victim is the number two name in the German Liberal Democrats and is a former defense minister. Could there be a political motive?
It turns out the Turkish drug mafioso is also looking for the murderer, and Kati finds herself in his undesirable company, too. As Aykol places Kati in the path of many people who may have had a motive and has her uncover these secrets, I was left thinking that, unlike traditional detective novels, very little focus is placed on the crime scene and interviewing witnesses. It seems there were none. “Whatever the motive it’s a murder without clues,” says one of the film stars on page 194, voicing my thought exactly.
Hirschel is a likeable heroine, one who loves İstanbul and lives life to the fullest, holding the city in her heart. She does eventually discover the secret of the film director murdered by the tossing of a hair-dryer into his bath. But whether her maverick methods stem more from her German nationality or her adaptation to İstanbul life, I leave it for you to decide.
“Hotel Bosphorus,” by Esmahan Aykol, published by Bitter Lemon Press (2011) 8.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-190473868-8
Published on Sunday's Zaman, 10 July 2011, Sunday
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