Serenade For Nadia is the latest in a wave of English-language translations of Turkish bestsellers. Delightful as it is to finally have access to literary classics that have long been available in languages other than English, it comes at a trying time for Turkish writers. The growing repression under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian regime has seen tens of thousands of Turkish writers, journalists, intellectuals and other potential critics of the regime rounded up and imprisoned on trumped up charges. Erdogan’s repressive rule has transformed one of the world’s most beautiful and creative nations into a fearful, sterile prison camp.
But it’s not the first time Turkey has faced such existential challenges, and the copious outpouring of literary work demonstrates the resilience of its persecuted writers. As Ahmet Altan, a bestselling novelist currently in prison on trumped up charges (including that he sent “subliminal messages” to coup plotters), writes from his prison cell:
“Others may have the power to imprison me, but no one has the power to keep me in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not…each eye that reads what I have written, each voice that repeats my name holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands, the springs, the forests, the seas, the towns and their streets. They host me quietly in their houses, in their halls, in their rooms. I travel the whole world in a prison cell.” – I Will Never See the World Again (Other Press, 2019)
Musician and author Zülfü Livaneli is well familiar with state repression. Imprisoned several times in the wake of Turkey’s 1971 military coup, he spent more than a decade in European exile before returning to his homeland in 1984. He was later elected to Turkey’s national parliament for a term from 2002-2007. Turkey’s long-simmering political tensions and the clash between traditionalists and reformers, democrats and autocrats, underpin much of his literary work.
Serenade for Nadia is evocative of the best thrillers, which are so attractive because they incorporate elements of a variety of literary genres. The book is told from the perspective of Maya Duran, a middle-aged woman and single mother who works as administrative staff for Istanbul University. She’s assigned to look after an elderly visiting professor, whose mysterious background evokes the interest of Turkish, Russian, and British secret police. Duran winds up embroiled in the professor’s mysterious past, which stretches back to Nazi Germany, and in the process of trying to sort out what’s going on she also winds up learning a great deal she did not know about her own country’s past.
The book thus manages to incorporate elements of mystery, political thriller, as well as a hefty dose of Turkish and world history. These elements help make it a riveting page-turner, but it’s the emotional aspect of the novel which renders it so endearing. Livaneli is remarkably attentive to the challenges faced by women in contemporary Turkey, a characteristic of his writing reflected in other novels, such as Bliss (2002) whose protagonist is a young woman raped by her uncle who narrowly escapes murder at the hands of her religious family.
In Serenade for Nadia, he works through his protagonist to address misogyny, toxic masculinity and the challenges faced by working women and single mothers in modern Turkey. Duran struggles to deal with the sexism of her co-workers, a truculent teenage son, and a self-focused lover, even before the geopolitical intrigues which accompany the professor enter her life. The complex plot allows Livaneli to sermonize on topics as varied as anti-Semitism, secularism and modernity, the role of faith in the modern world, diversity and multiculturalism, media and journalism, and more. In the hands of a less talented author such an attempt might turn into a didactic mess, but Livaneli manages to make it all flow in a coherent and compelling narrative.
Serenade for Nadia was published in Turkey in 2011, and offers a fascinating insight into that tumultuous moment when the country was teetering on the brink of change. Growing corruption and repression of civil rights under President Erdogan was a major concern, but there remained a sense that however bad things got, Turkey’s democratic institutions would ultimately prove stronger than the autocratic leader. Livaneli – speaking through the narrator, Maya – is critical of the growing autocracy of Turkey’s leadership, and proud of the country’s heritage as a vibrant space for political dissent, debate and change.
Yet only five years later, Erdogan would seize power and crush much of the country’s remaining dissenters with all the brutal repression of a police state. There’s a lesson here, and a warning, about how quickly political contexts can change. It’s ironic in that much of the book’s content explores Turkey’s role in the Second World War, and its engagement with Nazi Germany. Turkey – which in its modern form was founded in 1923 out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I, and therefore was still a young nation – sought to remain neutral during World War. But of course this proved a difficult balancing act in which protagonists on all sides vied, spied, and schemed for political influence in the nervous young country.
One of the book’s characters, a German professor who sought refuge in Turkey during the war, reflects on the rise of Nazism, and on how oblivious Germans had been to Hitler’s totalitarian threat when it emerged. There’s an irony here in that President Erdogan played a similar role, masquerading as a constitution-respecting democratic politician until he was in a position to deploy authoritarian rule and seize power. The professor’s comments are eerily prescient.
“Adolf Hitler moved step-by-step, according to the rules of the system, and even the most influential individuals and institutions supported him wholeheartedly,” reflects the narrator. “Looking back, it’s hard to understand how an entire nation could be so blind and acquiescent, but, then again, it’s easy to imagine the same thing happening here. No one listens to the few lone voices who point out how the Islamists are taking over the judiciary, the upper levels of the police, the schools, and, indeed, the entire government bureaucracy – how they’re already pushing ahead their agenda in the major cities whose administrations they control. On 23 March 1933, before he had been in power for two months, Hitler managed to get the Enabling Act passed in parliament, giving his government unlimited power. How long will it be before something similar happens here?”
As it turned out, not long. That’s essentially what happened in 2016, when President Erdogan seized power and began a series of purges that have seen over half a million people imprisoned and tens of thousands arbitrarily fired from their jobs (including judges, military officers, and literally thousands of university professors). Erdogan’s flimsy premise for seizing power was a failed, half-hearted military coup launched against his government in July of 2016. The coup attempt quickly collapsed, but Erdogan moved swiftly to take advantage of the chaotic situation to launch a counter-coup, using emergency powers to imprison and eliminate hundreds of thousands of potential opponents and advocates for civil rights and the democratic rule of law. The virtual police state Erdogan imposed in the wake of the failed coup continues to persecute opponents at home and abroad today.
Importantly, Livaneli draws connections between political crimes past and present, to show how the past influences the present and the present all too often echoes historical tragedy. The Armenian genocide – in which 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were systematically slaughtered by authorities of the Ottoman Empire (which preceded the founding of the Turkish Republic) between 1914 and 1923 — enters the plot, but so do numerous other examples of 20th century genocide and persecution.
Much of the narrative is grounded in the plight of Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany and its allies in the 1930s and ’40s. Turkey’s acceptance of some Jewish intellectuals provided the foundation blocks of the young country’s university system. Yet the country faced immense pressure from both Allied and fascist nations, as well as pro-Nazis within Turkey, to curtail its already limited support for Jews seeking refuge. This manifested in the plight of the ship Struma, a rickety and unseaworthy boat intended for no more than 100 passengers (with one barely functioning toilet), on which Romanian authorities crammed nearly 800 Jewish refugees who were trying to escape Europe in 1941. The Romanians charged extortionate prices for tickets onto the sailing deathtrap, and then also seized whatever possessions the Jews were unable to take on board with them.
The boat’s destination was Palestine, but the barely seaworthy vessel only made it as far as Istanbul. There, the refugees were forced to remain on board for more than two months under distressing conditions while European politicians argued over their fate. The situation is eerily reminiscent of modern-day stand-offs between European nations that refuse to help the rickety vessels filled with migrants and refugees which enter their waters.
What’s particularly shocking was the British role in actively working to prevent any aid being given to the hapless Jewish passengers. Britain was attempting to maintain control of its occupied colonial territories in Palestine, and was concerned about the effect of a growing and restive Jewish population in the Middle East. Britain thus exerted pressure both to prevent Turkey from aiding the fleeing Jews, as well as to prevent the boat from reaching Palestine. The British attitude echoed its contemporary cruel approach to refugees: trying to make life as miserable as possible for them in the hopes this would deter other Jews from seeking refuge.
The Struma about 1890. By Unknown author. IDF Archive (Public Domain / Wikipedia)
In the end, bowing to British pressure, Turkey refused to allow passengers to disembark and ordered the boat back out to sea, where it was promptly blown to pieces by a Russian submarine lurking just outside Turkish waters. The Russians may have fired the torpedo, but the deaths of the Struma’s 790 passengers and crew (there was only one survivor) lies equally on the shoulders of Britain.
It’s not the only abhorrent mass slaughter in Serenade for Nadia, which also explores the plight of Crimean Tatars, a population of Muslim Turks that inhabited Crimea in the Ukraine (invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014). Already persecuted under Soviet rule, Stalin deported tens of thousands of them (slaughtering entire villages in the process), using the collaboration of some Tatars with the Nazis as an excuse to wage genocide against the group as a whole. The collaborators – known as the Tatar Legions – supported Nazi Germany, which they saw as liberators from Soviet persecution. In Livaneli’s novel, it is observed they had little choice, caught between the two antagonists and facing inevitable attack by whichever side they didn’t join.
When the war ended, the Crimean Turks that collaborated, along with their families and villages, which had sought refuge in Europe as the Soviets advanced, were deported by the Allies back to the Soviet Union. The trainloads of Crimean Tatars, who were Turkic in background, had to travel through Turkey, and despite the desire of many Turks to help their kinfolk, once again Turkey succumbed to British pressure not to allow them sanctuary in Turkey. Instead, British and Turkish troops handed them over to Soviet forces, who promptly slaughtered them all, including entire families.
“What a strange country this was, every household had a secret, a story,” reflects Maya, as she learns the role her own relatives played in this process.
“How many people in this country had felt it necessary to hide their true identities…How much better it might have been if we’d all been allowed to be who we are, if we’d been free to build a multiethnic, multicultural society. We’d been so imprisoned by the nationalist myth promulgated by those who felt that in order to create a nation they had to create a national identity. Yet the myth was so fragile that those who felt their existence depended on it had to resort to violence and intimidation to protect it.”
Maya’s angry reflection is a timeless one, true for today’s Turkey and for so many other nations as well.
Serenade for Nadia is a beautifully wrought story and a riveting page-turner at the same time. It contains stories within stories, and the reader will quickly lose themselves in the intersecting plot threads and the rich histories upon which they draw. At the same time, it offers a moving and evocative depiction of modern Turkey, with all the sights, tastes, smells, and diverse cultural components that make that country so magical, even as it suffers under Erdogan’s brutal and corrupt dictatorship.
The book is a paean to everything that makes Turkey beautiful, as well as a tribute to the suffering its people have faced and the complex challenges they face in coming to terms with their past and building a viable future. That so much can be packed into a single book is a tribute to Livaneli’s profound skill as an author and observer of his country’s troubled present.