Books

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 Hotel

Publisher: City Lights
Length: 150 pages
Author: Yusuf Atılgan
Price: $15.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-12
Amazon

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

pigface

jackass

cow-puss

mule-mouth

ape-face

bear

hippo

cockroach...

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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