Translated from Turkish by Ümit Hussein
(New York: Other Press, 2019)
I am incapable of forgiving people who have hurt me. I’ve tried the whole Christian philosophy of turning the other cheek and proffering forgiveness. But what I’ve learned is that others, if given the opportunity, will only hurt you again. You’ll end up with two black eyes instead of one. And seriously, my back is so sore from getting stabbed, I’ve no interest in giving anyone a second chance. The problem with this state of being is that, while no one will ever get the opportunity to crush me twice, I am still weighted down with the memory of betrayal. And those memories are awful, painful. If I could shed them completely, I’d most certainly be in a better frame of mind. But to what extent am I willing to go to delete them? Or maybe a better question is, would I be willing to sacrifice the happy memories as well, create a complete void of my past, simply to extract the bits that burn?
Labyrinth, by Burhan Sönmez, begins with an alarm sounding and Boratin waking up completely befuddled. He has no idea where he is, or from where the noise is coming. Nothing looks familiar. More disconcerting, he has no idea who he is. He tried, recently, to commit suicide by jumping off the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul. But Boratin, a man with whom fortune has always been kind, didn’t die. A broken rib and a memory wiped completely clean of all personal information are the only repercussions. However, he hasn’t forgotten everything. Things unrelated to him, such as historical events, are still very much alive in his mind, but his time line is in shambles. He fixates on Mary and Jesus, a statue of the Pieta in his apartment, but he can’t remember if they lived yesterday or two thousand years ago.
Leaving his apartment is a struggle. He doesn’t sleep well, and he lays awake contemplating what his life can possibly amount to without a past. One question specifically boggles him, “What can be worth dying for? Was there anything that valuable in my life?” No one can point to any distressing problem he might have been experiencing, nothing that would prompt him to end his life. The Boratin that everyone seemed to know was happy, content.
In the fog of not knowing, his friends and jazz bandmates rally around him. They, and his doctor, do their best to reacquaint him with himself, but their efforts fall short: “They call me Boratin, and they show me my ID card so I’ll believe it. They think my parents’ names on the ID card, my date and place of birth are all I need in order to know who I am. But I don’t want to know who I am, I want to know what I am. They don’t tell me that. What am I?” And so he wanders the streets of the city searching for himself, trying to unearth clues that will lead him back to his memory.
But each turn down a different street, each conversation, carries him deeper into the labyrinth, the enigma of puzzling together his identity. He is gorgeous, a face that any woman would find attractive. He is a talented musician. And most importantly, he is a generous and empathetic friend. Every scattered shred of evidence he finds indicates a man pleased with his existence, a man with reasons to live.
Sönmez brilliantly guides the reader through Boratin’s mind, his confusion and his quest to recover his memory. He uses storytelling — anecdotes, fables, and histories — to describe lessons that are valuable for comprehending life. These tales offer morals by which people should live.
Antique books become an artful metaphor for memory. Until they are uncovered, a piece of history remains unknown. As a result, to fill a void, “Hunters…fritted away lifetimes yearning for books that were often mentioned in newspapers but somehow never found.” Is that what might happen to Boratin? Will he hunt eternally for something, a memory that was robbed from him the night he dove into the Bosphorus?
Clocks are ubiquitous throughout the novel. Relevant in that they stand for time, a concept with which Boratin now struggles. Toward the end of the novel, he feels compelled to methodically disassemble a clock. While observing the mechanics that keep the hands perpetually moving, Boratin observes, “Time in the cogs both moves forward and goes round in the same place. If I could figure out how that’s possible I might be able to figure out life too.” If only he could use a screwdriver to pick apart his brain, perhaps he might then be able to locate the memories he so desperately desires.
The setting is vibrant, and though I’ve never been to Istanbul I feel a sense of familiarity with the city having read Sönmez’s novel. Boratin is an extremely likable character. His dilemma — even for one who has never suffered memory loss — is relatable. After all, aren’t many of us searching — sometimes endlessly — for something that remains elusive?
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Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in River and South Review, Trash Panda Poetry, Conclusion Magazine, Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The New Ink Review, Ovunque Siamo, Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It!