This New Translation of Yusuf Atılgan's Work Shows a Mind Unraveling
Motherland Hotel is an astounding work by a master who makes it look easy.
Motherland HotelPublisher: City Lights
Length: 150 pages
Author: Yusuf Atılgan
Publication date: 2016-12
Motherland Hotel turns 44 this year but, for the first time, has been translated into English by Fred Stark. Even nearly half a century after its initial publication, it's easy to see why the novel "astonish[ed] critics". It's a novel of one man's sexual obsession and social isolation who's seeking an outlet until the narrative erupts in the only way it might have -- in an act of remarkably quiet violence to which the narrative naturally led and from which everything that follows proceeds.
Motherland Hotel is the brief story of Zeberjet, a character aptly compared to Camus' Mersault (The Stranger), and the proprietor of a small half-dozen roomed hotel in Turkey. But even these facts belie the skill with which Atılgan crafts a masterpiece of psychological breakdown, as one man loses touch with reality and wanders among the fragments of his mind.
The story begins with a seemingly inconsequential, quiet, Camusian interaction between Zeberjet and one hotel patron, a young woman, who leaves the hotel very early in the story but remains the subject of Zeberjet's pining for days afterward. As his obsession with the woman builds, he waits day after day for her return in the hope she might revisit his hotel. Her room is preserved shrine-like, into which he periodically creeps to masturbate beside her perceived ghost. In fact, his obsession dabbles in portraying her himself by acting out what she might have said during sex, smoking her cigarettes, and sleeping in her bed. "In a high, tired voice, as though it were being murmured in his ear, he said, 'Ahh, how I'm yours'."
The days come and go: he shaves his mustache, he buys news clothes, patrons are welcomed, many more are turned away, the hotel -- from somewhere beyond the narrative -- we begin to suspect is ceasing to be just that and instead is becoming a tomb into which he, his fantasy, and eventually the real victim of his violence are encased. Eventually, the violence, obsession, and sexual fantasy erupts until his mind wanders to and fro from Zeberjet's current time to moments from earlier in the story. It's a long winding account that may or may not be his own conjecture of his family's once-proud history. It soon comes to a point where it's impossible to understand all the links, as imagery, symbols, and idle references to earlier scenes glide in and out of one another as the mind breaks down in a way only Zeberjet can fully understand.
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Overlaid upon the account of Zeberjet's undoing is the history of his family, couched within the local history and the national history of his country. In fact, it's this familial history that most consumes Zeberjet as his breakdown is reaching its conclusion. Somewhere within this interspersed history, Zeberjet repeatedly seems to seek out the roots of his own violence, asking others for evidence that this or that relative might have committed an act as heinous as his. Didn't that relative once have just such an unhealthy obsession with his sister-in-law? That's what family gossip had said.
Once his own violent act has occurred, expelling his obsession, Zeberjet discovers its root was only ever in his own isolation (and misogyny?). "She wouldn't be coming. What did he expect from this woman; from women? 'She can go straight to hell,' he said aloud".
By the end of the novel, Zeberjet's narrative is pieced together from the chaos of his social, emotional, and mental breakdown and his obsessive recounting of the family history. This uninterrupted, modern style of unpunctuated sentences forming whole mountains of prose had erupted periodically throughout the novel previously, but reaches its most refined here at the end:
...grilling trial to reconvene November twenty-eighth so November twenty-eighth funny they draw it out what for the judge seemed to look at me said take them away
toss dirt in his chestnuts get our sand from Domuz Deresi
The novel descends into more of a poetic unraveling of the threads that have drawn the narrative together in earlier pages. Zeberjet's flirtations with a young man in a dark theater crowd out his memories of a trial in which the groom had refused to give a motive for murdering his new bride, pushed out further by that date, 28 November, which comes to signify a new day Zeberjet eagerly (darkly?) awaits -- now no longer driven to await the day of the female guest's return.
Motherland Hotel is an astounding work by a master who makes it look easy. He alternates between traditional narrative fiction and a remarkably nuanced poetry in which the reader can both follow and become lost in Zeberjet's psychological unmooring. Its comparison to Camus' Stranger is both fitting and insufficient. Having an English version for the first time is a gift.