When author Defne Suman told me about "Excavating Memory: Bilge Karasu’s Istanbul and Walter Benjamin’s Berlin" I got very excited about this book that brings Istanbul and Berlin together through two important authors of the 20th century.
What I learned at the Political Sciences Faculty on Frankfurt School and Walter Benjamin popped out and tried to come together with the fragments of my master thesis on Bilge Karasu's "Night" that I wrote with the supervision of literary theorist and critic Jale Parla.
The author of the book, Ülker Gökberk is Professor Emerita of German and Humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. It got me more excited to learn about her acquintance with Karasu.
I decided not to wait until the Turkish and German translations of this book to come out to make an interview. And we met with Mrs. Gökberk at a video call.
With the hope that this book would contribute to the recognition of Bilge Karasu in the world and would open a new dimention to Karasu studies, I am sharing our interview translated to English by Zeynep Beler.
S: What is the framework in which you united Bilge Karasu and Walter Benjamin, who aside from being prominent writers of the 20th century, come from two completely different historical and cultural contexts?
Ü: Walter Benjamin was born at the turn of the 19th century in Charlottenburg and lived in Berlin until the Nazis came to power in 1933, after which he never returned to Germany. He continued to write while in exile in Italy and France. He wrote the Arcades Project at the Bibliothequé Nationale in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. He attempted, too late, to escape France through Marseilles and the Pyrenees to Spain and from there to the USA.
Other writers of the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Hannah Arendt, had by that time arrived in New York. Benjamin, however, unable to cross the France-Spain border, tragically took his own life that very night in the 1940. One of my points of departure is what is referred to as “displacement”, that is, the aesthetics of being exiled from one’s homeland.
Tthe aesthetics of Alterity
Bilge Karasu, on the other hand, is a writer who spent his entire life in Turkey. He was born in Istanbul in 1930. He never left Turkey and passed away in 1995. Bilge Karasu may never have left hometown, but his work contains the aesthetics of otherness all the same.
Scholarly research thus far has designated Bilge Karasu as an idiosyncratic, modernist, partly postmodernist, writer with excellent mastery of the Turkish language. On the other hand, he has a rather enigmatic character and airtight, hermetic literary style. There are allusions to a political context, emphasis on “otherness” and at the same time, the leitmotif of homosexuality; in Bilge Karasu’s work this is alterity.
One of the main reasons that spurred me on this study was my interest in the places and spaces of the past. We can presently regard both the Berlin of Benjamin’s childhood and youth and the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul where Bilge Karasu spent his childhood and adolescence as lost spaces.
Both writers lived through roughly some type of historical destruction and transformation. Of course, in the case of Benjamin’s Berlin, that destruction is a more tangible historical fact. Benjamin is the child of a German Jewish family assimilated during and in the wake of the 1st World War.
Charlottenburg, where he spent his childhood and adolescence, is at the time a district populated by the assimilated Jewish bourgeois of Berlin. Naturally, when the National Socialists took over, democracy was among the first things to go. The Jewish families there, along with their assimilated culture, were gradually annihilated.
In Benjamin’s non-referential "Berlin Childhood Around 1900", those spaces and that period of time is brought back through a certain recollection technique. We are shown the high bourgeois homes and neighborhood.
Likewise, in Bilge Karasu’s "Lağımlaranası ya da Beyoğlu", we are presented with a posthumous compilation of his texts by Füsun Akatlı. Here he says, “in writing the Beyoğlu book, I wanted to relay a subjective history of my mother’s family” and, similar to Benjamin’s, these texts are also on-representational. There are representational references, but in bits and pieces. Fragmented. There are fragments and certain depictions that come repeatedly. Setting out from that, I ventured to examine lost spaces, alterity or displacement, and a model of recollection once again non-representational but rather crystallized within a space.
In Benjamin’s model of recollection, spaces are frozen tableaux. The zoo or his playroom, his grandmother’s home interiors, a panorama of Berlin, the squares… We again find the same fragmented tableaux in Karasu, challenging also the traditions of autobiography. As you know, Karasu is really playful with the identity of his narrator figures.
Here, then, we can’t really tell if we’re meant to read it as fiction or as memoir. There are references to writers of the era such as Turgut Uyar and Tomris Uyar. Yet when we compare Bilge Karasu’s work to other examples of autobiography it’s not quite an autobiography itself and this is only in relation to Beyoğlu.
Through that relationship, I wanted to bring to light the ethnic and cultural identity of Karasu that I believe has previously been touched upon extremely rarely, if at all.
Karasu’s father was an Istanbul Jew, his mother an Istanbul Rum. He lived with his mother and they moved together to Ankara. I regarded this to be an instance of displacement too. The removal of an ethnically Turkish Beyoğlu family to the steppes of Ankara is also an instance of displacement. Karasu’s mother is a Rum and she continued living with Karasu until her advanced years. I myself met her, Madam Aspasia that is.
This alterity, their ethnocultural identities, doesn’t reflect directly on the work of either Benjamin or Karasu. When we think of a literature of Beyoğlu, for instance, we think of Giovanni Scognamillo’s "Bir Levantenin Beyoğlu Anıları", or Maria Yordanidu’s "Loksandra" in the 60s, or Mario Levi… no matter what distance they take, they construct their own identities within that ethnic identity.
We don’t see that in Karasu, rather, replace a shift with an allusion towards homosexuality. Only when one looks closely at "Lağımlaranası ya da Beyoğlu" does it become apparent that imply ethno-cultural alterity: the lighting of candles, Judeo-Spanish idioms…
S: You’ve summed it up so well. We’ve gone over the lives of both Benjamin and Karasu. Reading your book, I was able to see more clearly how the engineering of the Turkish identity, in the context of the engineering of the nation state, had an affect on Karasu’s life and oeuvre. You go on to explain that we’re able to discern it in the silence and the unspoken.
In my master’s thesis examining Karasu’s "Night", my main focus was also on how silence had permeated the text and how within the text, words could relay silence. I set out to investigate the limitations of literature.
Now to approach his life story in the way you’ve interpreted it also contributes a layer of meaning to my thesis.
You’ve said that you approached both the lives of Benjamin and Karasu with emphasis on the transformations of Beyoğlu and Berlin and their being forced to leave those cities.
Both volumes in which the authors focused on their respective cities, "Lağımlararası ya da Beyoğlu" and "Berlin Childhood Around 1900", were published posthumously. This is also a fascinating connection.
Could you go into a bit more detail on the commonalities you’ve noticed in the two writers’ narratives and remembrances concerning these cities?
Ü: Of course. That’s a very valid question because the common ground of these remembrances, or unorthodox autobiographies so to speak, is in these two cities.
Let’s start with Benjamin, whose model of recollection and the way it relates to place is tantamount.
Benjamin repeatedly emphasizes in Berlin Childhood Around 1900 that it’s not only one individual’s childhood that will be told here but the collective childhood experienced in the entire city during that era. I suspect this is where his gravitation towards the city’s spaces in favor to his own personal history comes from.
He crystallizes the past in the city, in place. He criticizes the bourgeois lifestyle. We find its parallel in Karasu, in the form of criticism of Beyoğlu. The places where he spent his childhood are no longer the same places, the mass migration from Anatolia in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the destruction of Beyoğlu…
Benjamin starts his memoirs, “It began to be clear to me on the Italian island of Ibiza that I could not return to the Berlin of my birth. Writing is the best inoculation against nostalgia.” He avows to write and to remember in the face of nostalgia.
Diyalektik materyalist arka planından kalkarak bu burjuva toplumunun uyanması gerektiğini söylüyor. Benjamin’in betimlediği burjuva mekânları çok karanlık. Objeler, masif ahşaptan eşyalar yığılmış hâlde. Bunlar o kadar ağır mobilyalar ki diyor, burjuvalar öldükten sonra daha kaç nesil götürebilecek kadar sağlam ama bunun farkında değiller diyor. Kendileri de bir hastanede ölecekler ve bu mekanlarda ölüm yok gibi davranılıyor.
In parallel, the Beyoğlu depicted by Karasu is also deeply dark and gloomy. In some of the texts in "Lağımlaranası Ya Da Beyoğlu", a character called Ispartalı emerges and here I’d like to allude to your own postmodern study. The montage technique in Benjamin pulls together the fragments into a mosaic. Karasu, in turn, imports parts from his other work. I deciphered the code of Ispartalı to mean the old bourgeois of Beyoğlu, in fact the old residents of Pera, the Levantines so to speak. They were money savers who conducted their lives with the typical bourgeois values.
Both writers have an ambivalence in the sense of depicting space with elements of light and dark at the same time. There is never a nostalgic desire to return to a time or a place. Yet they don’t push it away completely but rather crystallize it within the places.
S: Your book closes with a biography of Karasu and his burial in a Muslim cemetery. Let’s end our conversation on that note: I hope that the matter of identity and alterity that you’ve drawn attention to through the concepts of Karasu and Benjamin helps pave the way for new studies. Thank you for this valuable interview.
Ü: Thank you.