How it felt to be there

‘Black Sea, Black Sky’ by İzzet Calasin

It’s an era we know by a single date – September 12, 1980 – and its appalling statistics. All those who lived through it still carry its marks. And yet it seldom appears in fiction, except as a looming shadow (as in Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book) or a silence overshadowed by the betrayals and disenchantments that would seem to be the lot of all political actors, whatever their views.

Here at last is a novel that captures the wild, rash idealism that sent so many thousands of young people into the streets, and with time, into armed combat, prison and exile. It begins in Taksim Square on May 1, 1977, when shots fired onto demonstrators cause a stampede in which 35 people lose their lives. A lycée student named Oak is saved by Zuhal, a fierce young woman who turns out to be one of the leaders of the revolutionary left. She soon vanishes into the crowd, but he does not forget her. And she continues to dip in and out of his life when he moves on to an Istanbul University beset by boycotts and daily skirmishes between the militant left and the nationalist right. But as much as he admires her steely sense of purpose, he is made of gentler stuff. He loves literature, which he continues to study in the home of his favourite professor And though he remains in thrall to Zuhal, who rejects the very idea of love, he finds plenty of others to console him.

There is Ayfer, his neighbourhood sweetheart. There is Semra, the classmate who would like to be more than a friend. And there is Nehir, who is much too young. By his own account, he lets them all down. Meanwhile, his friends keep falling away. Some escape with their guns to the mountains. Others flee the country. Levo, the kindest and least political of his classmates, is felled by a bullet at the gates of the university.

There are other memorable male characters in this novel: the rough-talking vegetable wholesaler for whom he works part-time; the mafia chief whose life he accidentally saves; the general who turns out to be a revolutionary at heart. But the best parts go to the women. Oak’s widowed literature-loving mother is finely drawn, as is the elderly professor and the stripper who helps Oak locate a safe house. The love objects in particular are full of surprises. However Oak sees them, they are never prisoners of his gaze. The further Zuhal travels along her doomed and righteous path, the more he is in awe of her, and with good reason.

Izzet Calasin has lived in Norway since 1988, and he writes in the language of his adopted country. Black Sky, Black Seawon a Gyldendal prize for best political novel. It is slightly let down in its English translation by misnomers that annoy and distract. Oak attends a sixth-form college. The professor’s house in Fatih looks out over a river. The Golden Horn is referred to as the Horn.

But even where there is an overreliance on overfamiliar figures of speech, the story remains beguilingly fresh. This may be because the horrors visited on Oak and his young friends by torturers and nationalist thugs seem never to dent their spirits. No matter how bad things get, they are immune to self-pity. They simply pick themselves up and rush off to the next terrible surprise. Their author is wiser. But he refuses to pass judgement: this is how it felt to be there. This is what died on September 12, 1980 when the tanks rolled in.

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