The Last Island by Zülfü Livaneli
New York. Other Press. 2022. 320 pages.
ABOUT A QUARTER of the way through The Last Island, Zülfü Livaneli’s latest novel to be translated into English, a figure known as “the President” cannot sleep at night. His title bears an uncanny resemblance to plutocratic heads of state from the US, or Turkey, people so reviled they’ve shed their names and humanness. Livaneli’s “President” hears what sounds like a man on his private terrace. He is convinced that it is a break-in. After succumbing to the truth that it was a seagull, he wages war on the birds. Any enemy will do, ideally the weak and innocent.
In 2008, when Livaneli wrote his tenth book, The Last Island, he did not know how much the metaphorical import of his novel would appreciate. It first became timely five years later, when the Gezi Park protests started in the spring of 2013, rallying an unprecedented millions of Turkish citizens to exercise their right to free assembly through acts of civil disobedience and revolutionary fervor, initially to protect the environmental integrity of Istanbul’s core. He is like “the Writer” of his allegorical tale, The Last Island, because his oppositional writing is prescient.
Due in no small part to Gezi’s conservative backlash, Turkey’s dictatorial strongman rule has since amassed power unlike any regime in the history of the Turkish republic, stoking fear as its centennial coincides with elections in 2023. Livaneli’s aging reputation as a dissident crooner and secular leftist continues with his novelization of liberal democratic values. His letters will likely be kept within that precious, endangered field in Turkey, where creative inquiry feeds humanitarian witnessing to effect lasting sociopolitical change.
But, to the chagrin of readers and many of his sorely untranslated fellow novelists in Turkey, Livaneli’s fiction does not express the spitfire and grit that roils up from the bloody soil of Anatolia’s territorial memory, its popular, multigenerational traumas overheating in the wake of mass suppression and arbitrary arrest. Whereas so much of modern Turkish literature brews with rugged, intoxicating force in the face of state terror, Livaneli’s pages are soft, tearful cries of melodrama that ultimately read like the vague prognosis of a bumbling country doctor.
In the midst of Turkey’s pantheon of imprisoned social novelists like Ahmet Altan, Sevgi Soysal, or Yashar Kemal, the fact that Livaneli served multiple prison sentences for his activism does not vindicate his often flaccid and stereotypical lines. His abject failure to craft thoughtful and convincing novelistic prose is not the fault of his admirable translators, Brendan Freely, and in the case of The Last Island, Ayşe Şahin, who should be lauded for their underestimated labor, globalizing Turkish storytelling while its authors lose their languages and livelihoods.
At the opening of The Last Island, Livaneli makes an honest confession. In his characteristic voice on the page, a relatively flat, overemotional being of detached omnipresence, he says that he is not a writer. Or, more accurately, he is not the best writer for his narrative, because that person has been silenced. In the stead of the lost, his is the last voice speaking. But, beyond his book, it is presumptuous to the point of eye-rolling megalomania to obscure the undying and proud struggle of Turkish writers who still work in and out of jail and exile.
In the long and fruitful tradition of employing the island as a literary device, Livaneli is following in the footsteps of Aldous Huxley, William Golding, and others. But he shamelessly and shallowly drops names, referring to historical luminaries like Rousseau, Freud, and Voltaire. His novel reads more like the text of a man vainly trying to write than that of a genuine attempt at contemporary literature. Livaneli, it seems, is writing because he can while others cannot. He feels indebted to his compatriots, allied to the struggle of moral uprightness.
Turkish American novelist Elif Batuman touched the essence of Western literature’s dual nature with her recently published second novel, Either/Or. She fictionalized Kierkegaard’s idea that living is a choice between aesthetics or morality. Like self-styled heroes, Livaneli is the kind of privileged artist who tasks himself with overcoming impossibility, the old trope of political art. But he does not forgo aesthetics with redeeming self-awareness. His heavy-handed plot is didactic at best, ludicrous at worst. Finally, The Last Island is a gross caricature of the obvious.
Matt A. Hanson
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