Using the innocence of animals to show the absurdity and cruelty of human society is nothing new in literature. However, Kemal Varol proves that it is still a powerful device in his newly translated book Wûf, a story of the 1990s conflict in southeastern Turkey.
Varol’s story starts when a broken dog — named Grandad by the narrator and Mikasa by the other dogs — is brought into a dog shelter. The vet does what he can but is unable to save Mikasa's back legs and instead rigs him up with a pair of wheels so he can move around. The other dogs in the pound start to speculate about what could have caused a dog to be so heinously wounded and eventually convince him to tell his life story.Eternal Dawn: A more murky version of the origin story of Turkey
Slowly, we learn Mikasa's story. He started his life as a street dog living in a southern city as tensions between the Northerners and the Southerners rise. While Mikasa starts to be rehabilitated and the sounds of war can be heard from outside the pound, he tells the other dogs about living through starvation and experiencing heartbreak until he is captured by the merciless soldier Turquoise who puts him into service as a bomb sniffer for the Northerners’ army.
Given its setting, it could be easily imagined that the book is going to be a political allegory about the seemingly never-ending violence in Turkey’s southeast and of course it is. Any story set in the ‘90s in southeastern Turkey is political by nature, but cleverly Varol keeps it focused on the dogs’ lives and struggles. He maintains the conflict strictly at the level that the dogs understand it. Our narrators and characters only know the combatants as the Northerners and Southerners, the acronym PKK is meaningless to them and our main character has never heard the name Abdullah Öcalan. By keeping a very simple dog’s perspective, he is able to demonstrate the pointlessness and malice of the war without getting trapped in the ideological tribes and the cycle of blame and recrimination.
That is not to say that Wûf is avoiding the issues of human rights abuses, murder and deprivation that occurred in this period. One example is the antagonist Turquoise. Though it is never exactly clear who in the government he works for, we do know that he disappears up into the mountains for weeks on end and comes back with men hooded and bound. He takes the men to be tortured in the depths of the army base while the Northerners’ conscripted soldiers pretend to hear and know nothing and pray they get home in one piece.
Turquoise’s role is to drive Mikasa’s story and he makes for a fascinating villain. We know that Turquoise is a Southerner himself who, for reasons unknown, has taken up the same side as the Northerners. He takes great pleasure in turning Mikasa, a street dog who smells of the south and loves a Southern dog, into a tool for the Northerners just like him. One of the central tensions of the story is whether Mikasa will accept the path that Turquoise is trying to force him on. Of course, Turquoise’s mistake is to forget that Mikasa is a dog to whom the conflict is largely meaningless and onto whom Turquoise is projecting his own journey.
This is a book that anybody who knows dogs is going to enjoy. The dogs are very doggy. The way they express themselves, interact with each other and experience the world will feel very true. I can imagine the street dogs of Istanbul cursing in much the same way when they are not given scraps from a kebab shop table. Varol gives them complex emotional lives while still making them come across as dogs. The only thing that doesn’t quite work is that there are a lot of them, both in the pound and as part of Mikasa’s pack and, although they have fabulous names like Gunsmoke and Mikrob, they don’t get much development of their own and can be a bit interchangeable.
This is a really strong book with an engaging story, memorable characters, crunchy visceral prose and engages with the extremely serious issues surrounding the civil war in a novel way.Erdoğan Rising: The battle for Turkey's soul