Burhan Sönmez has been quietly building up a reputation for writing really good novels and his latest offering, Labyrinth, further cements that he is one of the most interesting writers working today.
The story follows Boratin, a young jazz musician who has lost his memory after a failed suicide attempt from the Bosphorus Bridge. When I first saw that the novel was going to be an “amnesia story,” I was worried. Clichés about estranged family members, existential “who am I?” questions asked in the middle of the night, and secrets buried in memory all came to mind.
The odd thing about Labyrinth is that it has all of those elements, but they didn’t bother me. It is partly Sönmez’s style of prose alone that makes picking up any of his books worthwhile. Moreover, the tone of the book isn’t lurid or sensational — it is understated, relaxed even. Boratin doesn’t get himself into dramatic confrontations with loved ones, seeking to rekindle lost intimacy. When he muses on his identity, it feels extremely believable, and it is possible that there aren’t any skeletons in his closet. Though that opens up the troubling question of, “if his life was so perfect, why did he feel the need to jump off the Bosphorus Bridge?”, which Boratin must deal with.
The other thing that holds the clichés at bay is that Boratin is a well-constructed character who remains believable and sympathetic throughout. The ways in which he responds to his situation are nuanced and the supporting characters equally so.
Sönmez is interested in stream of consciousness. It has been present in all his previous books to a greater or lesser extent. However, in Labyrinth he goes further than he has in his previous work. That makes sense. Memory, identity and their vagaries are the kind of subjects that stream of consciousness was designed to explore. Using this literary device grants the reader the perception of discovering who Boratin is at the same pace that he is learning about himself. In a similar vein, Sönmez is clever in using the form of the novel itself to reinforce the effect of Boratin’s memory loss. For example, he uses chapter breaks to jump around in time and start a scene in the middle to disorient the reader in much the same way that Boratin is disoriented himself.
The only part of the literary effect that I didn’t like was the way Sönmez handles dialogue. He doesn’t use speech marks and runs different characters’ dialogs into one another. The precise importance of speech marks and conventions when writing dialogue has been debated by critics and writers for basically as long as people have been writing. It is the kind of thing that modernists like James Joyce got very excited about and spent time playing around with. The idea was to link the dialogue with the rest of the stream of consciousness and to make you experience the world as the characters do — with as few barriers as possible. In Sönmez’s book, however, rather than drawing me deeper into the frame of mind of the characters, the dialogue broke my immersion.
That quibble aside, the effect that Sönmez builds up is a quiet reflection on memory and identity that avoids the very real pitfalls of predictability and pretence that that other novels about amnesia fall into.
Sönmez’s previous books are constructed in a rather unique way. His creative method involves writing lots of short stories and finding the connections between them to build up a mosaic of a story. It was that unique style that made me love his second translated book, Istanbul Istanbul, which, if you haven’t yet read, you should. In Labyrinth, Sönmez has written a more cohesive story. You can partly see his style in the way the segments of the novel flow, but the patchwork of the jokes, anecdotes and fables that built up Istanbul Istanbul isn’t present in this book. Although disappointing for me, who, if I'm honest, was just hoping for Istanbul Istanbul Istanbul (wow that was a terrible joke), it is exciting to see that the writer isn’t resting on his laurels and is trying new things.
Last year I spoke to Amy Spangler about publishing and a range of other issues. One of the things she said that has stuck with me is that publishing houses are looking for something anthropological when they publish translated novels. They are looking for works that “say something about Turkey,” rather than simply a great novel set in Turkey or by a Turkish writer. Labyrinth is a book like that. It is not hugely interested in political statements or explaining “the Turkish experience” to anybody. It is my hope that Burhan Sönmez has broken through the odd selection processes that the English-language publishing industry imposes upon itself, and that we keep seeing more of his books come out in translation. His books are good. People should read them and I want to see more of them.