Secrets of a Vanishing Country by Pelin Turgut
Reviewed by Luke Frostick
In a lonely mountain hotel somewhere in Anatolia, an insomniac woman goes unnoticed in the bar. Hidden on a sofa, she overhears a shadowy group of people telling fairy tales to each other in an attempt to salvage something important from a country fading away at the edges. This is Pelin Turgut’s Secrets of a Vanishing Country.
Turkey has rich folklore based in its musical, poetic and oral storytelling traditions. However, in this book, Turgut is not retelling the old stories, but trying to create her own understanding of folklore and fairy tales and building new myths. Some of the stories that make up Secrets of a Vanishing Country feel very much like traditional folktales; such as that of a miniature girl caught in a fisherman’s net. However, some veer off into unexpected directions, for example, a story about a professor meeting an alien on his balcony and the existential spiral it sends him down. My favourite was a story about a woman trapped inside a billboard commercial, which was beautiful and when you think through all the implications, delightfully disturbing.
Although not drawing heavily from traditional Turkish folk stories, Turgut’s book is still very grounded in Turkish culture and takes the reader on a journey through various Turkish landscapes, with stories of Black Sea fishing villages, Ottoman Istanbul and the poor, built-by-night suburbs beyond the end of the metro lines. Though stories capture a view of Turkey in which the supernatural is possible, the book also snatches moments of the mundane life of the country as well. For instance, one of the stories starts with a scene of characters stuck in a long minibus commute that is (at least before the pandemic) such a familiar part of life in Istanbul.
The book is not inherently political, but the fables and the meta-narrative do deal with some of the political problems being faced in Turkey today, such as sexual violence, minority rights, creeping dictatorship.There are not so subtle references to the Gezi park protests in 2013 that shook up the country and in many ways can be seen as the point when the Turkish government took a hard turn towards authoritarianism.
What is clever of the tales is that each of them is able to capture a sense of the wild difference between various places and times while keeping a constant dreamlike tone. Credit here is due to the writer of course, but also Alexander Dawe who assisted in the translation. He is one of the best literary translators from Turkish to English currently working and has translated some really important classic Turkish books such as The Time Regulation Institute. His involvement in this book was one of the initial reasons for my interest in it. He is not the only person to have contributed to it. Something has to be said about the artwork. Each story is illustrated with artwork by Bülent Gültek an illustrator and toy maker. His pictures are colourful, bold, surreal and set the tone of the book in that dreamlike state that it needs.
The overall effect of the book is that each of the individual tales is compelling and then on top of that you have a meta-narrative of the storytellers that eases the reader from one to another and pushes you on to find out the secrets behind the vanishing world. Could the meta-narrative had a more compelling ending? Yes, it could have. It leaves things slightly hanging, and although I think some people will enjoy the ambiguity, I found myself wishing for more clarity.
To bring this to a close, this is a strong debut book from Turgut that brings a new perspective to the world of fairytales, and I hope that there is more coming from her in the future.