Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Time of Mute Swans

The Time of Mute Swans / Ece Temelkuran; translated from the Turkish by Kenneth Dakan.
New York: Arcade Publishing, c2017.
404 p.

This beautiful, heart-breaking book was illuminating, moving, and harrowing to read. Set in 1980, in Ankara, Turkey, it reveals the warring elements of Turkish society -- between democratic leanings or communism, and the harsh crackdowns of a dictatorial government; between rich and poor; between beauty and terror. It reveals the reality of life in Turkey in the 1971-1980 era with two coup d'etats and a bloody social history. 

But it does so by following two families, from the viewpoints of their children, Ayşe and Ali. These two children tell the story from their naive and nearly comprehending perspectives, and the story is stronger because of it. Their hope and optimism in the face of larger events, which the reader can parse in a way that the children can't, is compelling.

The children believe that they can affect circumstances, whether it's by Ayşe's conviction that they need to get butterflies inside parliament, or their growing need to rescue a swan from the city park from which swans have been disappearing to serve as adornment for the government's private properties, with their wings clipped so they can not fly away.

In this summer of 1980, mute swans have migrated from Siberia to the Black Sea for the first time in decades. This unusual occurrence and the resultant swan kidnapping stands as metaphor in the book, for the Turkish people's freedom. But it is also a powerful theme because of its internal logic, and the way that the children come to their plan naturally.

As the story progresses and the quirks of both children are shared, the reader becomes very attached to both of them. They are each complex characters with intense internal lives that the adults around them overlook.The innocence of their narrative places the horrors around them in higher relief. And yet the conclusion is uplifting, with both  a sense of possibility and of closure.

This book was both illuminating in an historical sense, and a wonderfully done narrative. Although it can be difficult to write from a child's perspective, I felt that Ece Temelkuran captured something in her depiction of these children, and these families, that was ephemeral and fleeting and as likely to evade being pinned down as Ayşe's butterflies. A beautiful, powerful read. Recommended.

For a more complete and detailed review of this book, check out this article at the Turkish Literature Blog, including music. 

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