Epic story of a mental health hospital on the Black Sea coast

Luke Frostick writes: Ayfer Tunç’s newly translated book The Highly Unreliable History of A Madhouse is a novel that is humorous, tragic, profound, epic in scale as well as intimate. However, it is not an easy read. Still, working my way through it was rewarding for its humor and the diverse cross-section of Turkish society that it captures.

Luke Frostick

Ayfer Tunç’s newly translated book The Highly Unreliable History of A Madhouse is good, excellent even. It is bold and innovative; able to balance an unusual structure, a rich cast of characters and a highly non-linear story and somehow provide a novel that is humorous, tragic, profound, epic in scale as well as intimate. 

On the surface, the novel tells the story of a mental health hospital on the Black Sea coast on one fateful day. Yet that is only the start and the end point. What happens in between is a huge interconnected web of people, places and objects.

As an example, the story starts with guest speaker Ülkü Birinci who is about to give a lecture in the hospital auditorium. The dry narrator goes on a tangent about Ülküs use of neologisms and that brings the narrator to the topic of School Secretary Şenay and how her expensive holidays abroad purvey her with English words for conversation. From there on every character that is introduced is fleshed out with a back story and soon the reader discovers that guest speaker Ülkü Birinci has long been left behind and they are reading a story of a completely different shape, in a different place and time. From there, the story will morph again, jumping from character to character until the narrative eventually goes back to the hospital. If one were to draw the structure of the story it would look like circles looping away from and then inevitably back into the madhouse. 

The effect it builds up is a sweeping depiction of Turkish society and history, from academics and politicians to umbrella salesmen and impoverished housewives. It tells us stories from the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, the strife and turmoil of the Republic’s founding, the exhilarating new millennium and everything in between. The story shows how the lives of the characters intersect sometimes directly, sometimes by the faintest threats and posits that everything is connected by fewer steps than one might have thought. 

The patchwork of stories in itself is impressive. At times, reading the novel feels like sitting in coffee shop, eavesdropping on the gossip of the regulars. However, that Tunç is able to keep all of these different stories connected and bring all the different strands together for a satisfying ending is a remarkable feat.  

The book is witty throughout. The narrator’s matter-of-fact tone is able to make the normal goings on of the people, their foibles and failings, very funny. I laughed out loud a number of times. The book is not, however, solely a comedy. It has some heartbreaking low points. We are with some characters for the full span of their lives and watch their hopes and dreams wither away over time. Moreover, the book creates this whiplash effect where the reader is taken from a comic moment to a tragic one in the space of a few lines. For example, the humorous account of an overly bossy matron in the hospital changes into an intensely painful story about domestic abuse and rape.

Domestic violence, sexual violence and familial coercion are major themes in the book. Though the Turkish version was published in 2009, the current climate of femicide, numerous high profile cases of domestic violence within Turkey and the government’s attempts to undermine the Istanbul Convention makes the book ever so relevant. It offers a clear-sighted look at the darkness that can lurk within families and shows that abuse is not a problem limited to the distant past or any particular social group or class. 

Although the book has numerous additional themes, taking a step back, a theme that Tunç keeps returning to is entrapment and escape. The characters are stuck in abusive or stale relationships, in dead-end jobs, in mental health institutes. A lot of the tragedy and comedy is found in the ways that they try to escape both internally and externally, sometimes successfully, often not.

Credit is most certainly owed to the translator Feyza Howell. The book is linguistically complex and Howell had to bring the street slang of Black Sea drug addicts, Ottoman pashas, pretentious academics and more into English, while maintaining the consistent tone of the narrator. This was done successfully.  

The Highly Unreliable History of A Madhouse is not an easy read. It is dense and took me far longer to get through than other novels of similar length. Still, working my way through it was rewarding for its humor, its melancholy and the diverse cross-section of Turkish society that it captures.