Nurunisa’s father died, her mother withdrew, and in her bereft and solitary Istanbul childhood, she never developed any central organizing principles for her life. Well into adulthood, she lives suspended between her deep loneliness and her inability to connect with others. And like most people, she tells stories to make sense of it all.
She reflects on her memories from the perspective of her current life in a changed and changing Istanbul. “I know that the city is saying something and that its message is growing louder….It’s a futile exercise, this inventory I’m making of a vanished friendship. It’s a way to pass the short time before something else takes over.”
As a student in Britain and Paris, she invented and reinvented herself for others, and wistfully admired those with more solid personal relationships and philosophies. Most of the people she has known talked in lists and theories, simplifying and composing reality. At university, she created an “invented intimacy” with her boyfriend, and allowed the affectionate relatives of a friend to imagine her Turkish family as large and loving. In this fictionalized life, “I thought that I had put things in order and that I could keep them in balance, so long as I kept a distance.”
In Paris, she meets M., a much older novelist she admires, and they develop a platonic friendship “with its particular logic, its detachment from the world.” They walk through the city together, talking, stopping for meals. She is open and honest with him about many things in her life, but she never makes eye contact with him, and never tells him she has read his books. But he sees more than she wants him to, or at least, she thinks he does. “He was troubled, he told me one time, by the difficulty of making his students understand the difference between art and artifice. He said that what his students thought of as style was an unwillingness to tell a story. He wondered whether he was only teaching them the illusory mechanics of craft, by which they could conceal the absence at the heart of their writing, trying to make up for all the things they were not able to confront. I nodded in agreement, but I wondered, feeling uneasy and embarrassed, whether M. was trying to tell me something in his particular way.”
In time, he threatens to illuminate too much of her deceptions, and self-deceptions, her bitterness and solipsism. “During my friendship with M., I began to remember something about myself I had been looking away from…I told myself I would allow it to emerge, when the time was right. But that is no different from keeping it at bay.” Eventually, she runs from him as she does from everyone.
How much this affects him is unclear–she portrays his life as full of friends and peers, but this could be only another self-justifying story. Her focus is on how he affected her. “What mattered most was that memory was stripped of bitterness and retold with joy.” She takes the experience back to Istanbul, and reflects on it where there is no-one to challenge her version. Is this the author’s intent? That isn’t entirely clear either. And perhaps it is only a gender-flipped version of a classic story, the brief encounter with no consequences but enlightenment.
This is a beautiful, subtle novel of uncertainty and loss, both personal and historical. It has no definite answers, but much to say to anyone who has struggled to understand their past. Or who feels the uneasiness of the shifting world these days, the conflicting stories told by people fighting to recreate the world in the image of their beliefs, to control what is considered the truth. “I feel something for all these lonely people I see–so lonely amidst such crowds. I feel their dislike of the past, their wish to bury it and to look away…It’s a desire for all to be new. It isn’t unlike fear.”