Olivia Manning: The Balkan Trilogy

“The story of a marriage and of a war,” reveals the NYRB description. Thus it was with a sense of irony that I picked this up after learning that Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh met on the set of the 1987 BBC adaptation, married two years later, and divorced when Branagh had an affair with Helena Bonham Carter.

I have to admit that the silly curiosity in whether Guy and Harriet Pringle would meet a similar fate was partly what spurred me to read on. Lest this begins to sound like a gossip column, let me continue by writing that there is a certain ease in reading Olivia Manning.

That can hardly be said of other wartime books that have close to a thousand pages, and yet, here is The Balkan Trilogy; alive with the imperfections of being, the tragicomedy of the human condition, the uncertainties of love and life, and keen observations on history that kept me engaged up to the very end.

Manning is also an ideal literary guide for a place one rarely reads about. The last volume is set in Greece and the first two in Rumania. Despite my daring adventures in world literature, Rumania remains unfamiliar territory, but with her geospatial adeptness and descriptive prowess sustained by first-hand experiences, I was wholly transported to Bucharest’s golden domes, outdoor cafes, and societal hodgepodge, and baptized into the political currents of WWII through the stunning perspective of the Balkans.

My initiation to Manning’s work was School for Love. As if reading my thoughts, Rachel Cusk’s introduction addresses my reflection on why I was met with yet another orphan as a main protagonist: “A central metaphor for war, displacement, cataclysm, and the death of the old world in 1940s Europe.”

And yet, despite the solemn themes and the fight for a marriage in the face of disenchantment and war, the aforementioned ease stems from a writer who stops to smell the roses; someone who implies that doing so does not distract us from the more important things in life but nourishes us instead and gives our lives more meaning.

Sometimes we need a massive trilogy to be reminded that the only real fortune in this cruel world is to live and love.

Burhan Sönmez: Istanbul Istanbul & Labyrinth

“The beauty of a book, says the book dealer, lies in the fact that no other book can arouse the same feelings in you. That’s why you can’t compare good books.” — Burhan Sönmez, Labyrinth

When your desire to forget certain things mingles with a character’s desire to remember, and the words from the book and those unsaid in your heart cross paths, the sensation stays with you, the way your first sip of raki does — like drinking smooth, liquid embers as your insides become drenched with that distinctive Turkish melancholy.


One ends tragically, the other ambiguously, but the influential power of Istanbul that takes hold of writers is exquisitely manifested in this pair. Despite Istanbul being a bazaar of a thousand and one stories, Burhan Sönmez has his own approach to storytelling and his own approach to this alluring, Janus-faced city that readers who are just as enamored with it as I am will hold in esteem. As a certain character says, “Just as you can’t bathe in the same river twice, neither can you tell the same story twice in Istanbul.”

The interesting thing you’ll discover about these two books is that, despite being two entirely different novels by the same author, their titles are interchangeable. Both are about labyrinths, and both are about Istanbul; both can either be about the labyrinths of the mind and memory or the labyrinths of the city; and I find both to be best read successively.


The past — or the land of our birth — can be a burden from which we sometimes wish to be free, but who are we without it?

Elias Khoury: Broken Mirrors (Sinalcol)

“In the old days pomegranates stood for a woman’s breasts and when a lover spoke words of love to his beloved he would liken her breasts to pomegranate fruit. Do you know what we mean today when we say ‘pomegranate’? A pomegranate is a hand grenade. See how far pomegranate has fallen from the throne of love and become a part of war?”

NYRB’s launching of Anton Shammas’ Arabesques with an afterword by Elias Khoury prompted this reading. I am thrilled to finally see Khoury’s name on an NYRB cover, but still baffled as to why this virtuoso of form, poetic prose, historical and political insight continues to be unbelievably underrated! 

One probably cannot read his books consecutively because of all the trauma they contain, and how he presents a different form of the novel each time could disorient those who prefer the familiar; but on my fourth novel by Khoury, I remain amazed…

…especially when I disliked the main character for his views on marital infidelity right from the beginning, and I found more repulsive revelations in other characters; and yet, the hypnotic storytelling with beautiful lines about words and meaning just pulled me in. Strong female characters emerged, the plight of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon was addressed (an especially meaningful aspect as I’ve noticed how Lebanese authors from Alameddine, al-Shaykh, to Khoury have often included Filipina domestic help in their depiction of the Beiruti socio-scape), Lebanon’s history came through in well-executed layers, with two brothers on different sides of the civil war clashing ideologies were dissected, but as broken pieces of the mirror began to come together for the reader, the characters’ lives fell apart.

Khoury is less abstract here. These are all symptoms of the same sickness, he says. “He’d told her that his soul hurt and that there was no pain worse than that of the soul.” This is what war does to lives, he says. This is what war does to identity. This is what war does to love. This is how war never ends if it lives inside us.

On a lighter note, Archipelago Books hit the bull’s eye with that Wassily Kandinsky cover art!

Daniel Mendelsohn: Three Rings & Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: The Time Regulation Institute

One was acquired because of the unmistakeable image of my favorite city that bewitched me as I browsed through NYRB’s contemporary collection; and the other because there are only two Turkish modern classics in the Penguin collection and I’ve already read and loved the other one!

What is a classic? In Amit Chaudhuri’s rephrasing of J.M. Coetzee, it is that which speaks to you when you are ready to hear it. I was not too sure about being ready, but if Pamuk thinks Tanpinar is the most remarkable author in modern Turkish literature, you trust him… even if it means limping through four hundred pages of winding narrative for an entire week.

But as reading fate would have it, Mendelsohn’s book turned out to be the crutch that got me through my inadequacies as a reader and the compass that prevented me from losing my way through Tanpinar’s meandering tale.

Aside from being so much more, Three Rings sheds light on ring composition in masterpieces by Homer, Proust, Sebald, and other literary forebears. Because of this, it made me recognize this exact literary form in The Time Regulation Institute and taught me to luxuriate in the beauty of narrative digression instead of getting lost.

As if harmonizing intentionally, Tanpinar evokes the eastern concept of time as a non-linear progression as Mendelsohn intimates this non-linearity in literature and life.

Time Regulation Institute is primarily a satire on the young Turkish Republic during Atatürk’s cultural revolution, which included enforcing Western time and imposing a fine on those who continued to observe Islamic time. While Atatürk is lauded in the West as a hero for modernizing a dying and retrogressive Ottoman Empire, Tanpinar artfully warns readers about how new freedoms are accompanied by new tyrannies a seldom heeded but always relevant, and necessary, warning.

“The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale — or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments… never have I known a concept so inextricable from its antithesis, and indeed entirely crushed under its weight… I must confess I’ve always found freedom an elusive concept… if we truly felt passionately about it, then wouldn’t we have…never let it out of our sight?”

Amit Chaudhuri: Finding the Raga

A note that aches to resolve on the semitone next to it is called a leading-tone in Western music theory. While it comes closest to what a shruti is in Indian classical music, they are not equals; and although shruti literally translates to “what is heard” in Sanskrit, it has another meaning in Hindu sacred literature. Shruti in Indian classical music is the smallest gradation of pitch discernible by a human ear and the tiniest interval of pitch that a singer or musical instrument can produce.

But it is not my intention to bore non-musician friends with more of that. Finding the Raga is a poetic and accessible introduction to Indian classical music. It imparts an ample amount of artistic insight to share in future discussions. Aside from suggesting that our understanding of music enhances our appreciation of literature, language, and the world, it is an enlightening reminder that there are other lenses in which to view the world and other modes of music through which we can listen to the world aside from the Western.

It was, however, the idea of shruti that made itself heard to me more resoundingly, and exactly what I needed to read and learn on the first day of the year; because while leading-tones in music to which I am accustomed communicate a certain unease and a longing to resolve, in the raga, “Shruti has to do with the note’s anticipation of the next note, as well as its refusal to be immediately transformed into it. It’s to do with sometimes preferring a state of becoming, of being transformed…”

Once again, this in-betweenness. The last book I read in 2022 was Olivia Manning’s School for Love, a coming-of-age novel set in Jerusalem after the Second World War that seemed to me about the state of in-betweenness. It made me ponder on the truth that life itself is an entire in-betweenness and that, perhaps, the true test of our lives is in how we navigate through the uncertainty.

And now, this whole concept of shruti, a coming to terms with, and even a relishing of, this in-betweenness.

Finding the Raga has set the tone for my year. Here’s to making the in-betweenness both the journey and the home, the way sadhana does not differentiate between labour and its fruit or between preparation and performance, the way a khayal does not demand the listener to distinguish between process and finished product; and here’s to fine-tuning life for this interval of in-betweenness that can be made beautiful.

Olivia Manning: School for Love

It is an unusual Jerusalem winter, although there is no nativity scene. It is 1945. It is about Felix, an orphan crossing over from childhood to adulthood. It is about a time of unsettling calm at the end of one war and the brewing of another conflict. It is about a place between two upheavals, and read by this reader just as the year is ending and another is about to begin.

…and maybe the story still matters to us because it is all about the state of in-betweenness, a state that we constantly find ourselves in; and because life itself is an entire in-betweenness. After all, “I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love,” ponders Mrs. Ellis, and maybe the true test of our lives is in how we navigate through the uncertainty of this in-betweenness and treat others in their own in-betweenness.

Sevgi Soysal: Dawn & Yashar Kemal: Memed, My Hawk

When Archipelago Books released their edition of Dawn, I immediately placed an order and entertained myself with Memed, My Hawk and a few other books while waiting for its arrival. This is my second NYRB/Archipelago book-pairing and I’m finding these serendipitous duos to be highly rewarding.

Maureen Freely, whose translations of works by Sabahattin Ali and Orhan Pamuk I have enjoyed, pens an insightful preface to Dawn that enlightens readers about Sevgi Soysal’s life and the paradox in Turkish women’s rights that she was born into; and for the 2005 NYRB edition of Memed, My Hawk, launched on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, Yashar Kemal himself wrote the introduction wherein he reflects on people whose destiny it is to revolt.

Little did I know that the two Turkish works would complement each other and provide a rare glimpse of the Çukurova plain when it was still a setting for poor villagers, cruel landlords, bandits, orchards, and fields of thistles in Memed, My Hawk, and the same district on the cusp of urbanization in Dawn — far removed from the glorious domes and minarets of Istanbul that are more familiar to the international reader but closer to the woes of the working class.

Kemal (1923-2015) and Soysal (1936-1976) were no strangers to arrests and serving prison time for political activism. Memed, My Hawk is Kemal’s first novel, and Dawn Soysal’s last. But the symmetries are endless. The lives that both authors lived as leftist intellectuals and the fights they fought against authoritarianism and injustice are fervently manifested in these works.

The word “leftist” might cause some to flinch as it comes with a lot of baggage and it is deplorable how the mere association to the word can lead to “red-tagging” in my country; but the flawed and deeply human characters in both works reveal various shades of this problematic term that, stripped to its purest state, is simply the pursuit of equality, equity, basic human rights, liberty, and justice.

“Since when did we start thinking that struggling is a crime, and doing nothing was innocence and brilliance?” — Sevgi Soysal, Dawn

Mathias Énard: Zone

Tell them of battles, kings, and elephants,

without the elegance, without the elephants,

only battles, cruel kings, and pawns,

“Comrade, one last handshake before the end

of the world,” says a madman

at the station in Milan,

Francis Servain Mirković is burdened

by the remark, burdened

by the contents

of his suitcase, by the contents

of his mind,

as the train steers to Rome,

it is not scenery that flash by,

it is his life; no home,

Balkan conscript, a spy,

dysfunctional lover, son,

former informer

in the Zone, epicenter

of my literary quakes,

“the Zone, land of the wrathful savage

gods who have been clashing

endlessly

since the Bronze Age,” but he is

convinced that tomorrow he will

be a new man, as the train moves

memory

is a threnody

of the guilt of nations,

of the sins of the world,

of over a century’s worth

of savagery,

a brutal montage

of conflict, training our eyes to truths 

that we prefer to turn away from, a book

to make our consciences flinch, no one

is ever prepared

for official truth

says our antihero, this man,

a product of a history

of violence,

a tragic aspect

of a portrait

of a man

of our time.

Hamid Ismailov

“We are a nomadic people. Today we pitch our yurts on one mountain pasture, tomorrow on another. Some people see their sense, their history, their fellow men as urban, and preserve all this in schools and madrasas, books and manuals. But we get on our horses and carry everything on our persons, and we have to keep it like this, on the move, in our minds and hearts.” — Hamid Ismailov, Manaschi

Sometime in between the first and the second volume of this Central Asian triptych, I travelled to Uzbekistan where Ismailov’s books cannot set foot because they are banned, and had a glimpse of the place that wrote the author.

Devil’s Dance is an intense initiation to Uzbek Literature. Of Strangers and Bees playfully meanders across the boundaries of time, literature, and geography. Manaschi is a geopolitically relevant finale that equals the force of Devil’s Dance.

But whether one speaks of the persecution of Uzbek writers throughout different regimes and implies that the writing process is akin to a dance with jinns;

the other of exile, elusive homelands, the value of community, man’s capacity for good and evil, or the search for truth and self through wanderers and bees;

and another of the trouble with imposed artificial borders, ethnic conflicts, the complexity of identity, or mystical bardic traditions;

all three uniquely celebrate the rich storytelling heritage of Central Asia — a heritage so crucial that a protagonist from the second volume boldly claims it to have shaped the shorelines of the great ocean that is Russian literature.

I love how this trilogy is a confluence of literary traditions rather than a defiance of the Western form. It manifests the power of stories, written, uttered, or observed; the power of stories when lived, as we become our stories and our stories become us; and the power of stories to take us beyond pathways of silk, even to places where only the rustle of words can go.

“It was a good thing the world had Uzbek literature.” — Hamid Ismailov, Of Strangers and Bees



Orhan Pamuk: Nights of Plague

Orhan Pamuk’s longest novel to date unravels with a pace that tends to linger, to wit: it is not for readers who are in a hurry. For that reason, I found it strangely refreshing. Strange because it is a plague narrative that is not meant to be refreshing, refreshing because of the reading experience it provided; defiant of the modern reader’s preference for a literary quick fix, and defiant of our silly reading goals that have more to do with the number of books rather than the languid relishing in an author’s descriptive prowess.

Perhaps I simply feel at home in the expression of an author whose mind is a museum of melancholy, but I am now sensing that part of the allure is in how his books are written for their own sake — written because he felt they needed to be written rather than written for their salability. Isn’t that pure art?

Set in 1901, in the fictional island of Mingheria, “on the route between Istanbul and Alexandria,” it is a curious deviation from a usual Pamuk novel that stays within reach of Istanbul. While Snow is set farther in eastern Turkey, an invented island between Crete and Cyprus is still a surprising backdrop for seasoned Pamuk readers; but only until we realize that the creation of Mingheria allows for a certain leverage and freedom for political criticism. Methinks Mingheria speaks more about Turkey than it does about an imaginary island nation in 1901. 

This novel can teach a thing or two about running a nation during a plague; about epidemiology; how to deal with resistance from different sectors against quarantine measures; how plagues do not distinguish between Christian or Muslim; how failed attempts at containing a plague can fan the flames of a revolution; how revolutions can be exploited; the similarities between solving a murder and stopping an epidemic; and living or loving through the sickness and political ferment. It is about plagues, revolutions, nationalism, the administrative and language reforms that ensue, the fickleness of governments, about the accidents of history, how history is made, and how history is written.

It echoes Camus’ The Plague in the way that the narrator’s significance is revealed only at the end and also for the chilling reminder that plagues reappear throughout history “for the bane and enlightenment of men”.

Unfortunately, man easily forgets, and unwittingly asks to be reminded ever so often.