Anson Ching

Last year, I read A Dream in Polar Fog by Chukchi writer Yuri Rytkheu (translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse) and A Mind at Peace by Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (translated by Erdağ Göknar), two novels published by Archipelago Books. Rytkheu wrote in Russian during the Soviet era, and his works are set in his homeland in northeast Siberia, where the Chukchi people live on the edge of the Bering Strait—as far east as one can go on the Eurasian continent. Tanpınar was born just before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, on the cusp of the tumultuous transition to Ataturk’s Turkish Republic. Like Rytkheu, he is also of two cultures, Oriental and Western, the old and the modern. A Dream in Polar Fog follows John MacLennan, an injured Canadian sailor stranded in a Chukchi village and forced to rely upon the locals when his arms are amputated. Rytkheu captures the stoic beauty of the Arctic, and manages to adapt his people’s myths and his family’s oral stories into modern prose. Ironically, rytgļv, from which his name is derived, supposedly means “unremembered” in Chukchi. Like Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic—the basis of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker—the Canadian connection seems to be a way to connect the outside world with the insular USSR without making overt political claims. Everything about Canada, it seems, is mildly neutral and unoffending. A Mind at Peace chronicles the lives of a group of related people in Istanbul during the early years of republican Turkey. Tanpınar goes to great lengths to create imagery that captures the lively streetscapes of Istanbul and offers vivid descriptions of the Golden Horn, yet his sentences sag with nostalgia. You can almost breathe in Istanbul’s melancholic climate—hüzün. It is not hard to see how the novelist Orhan Pamuk’s flirtations with Ottoman aesthetics are indebted to Tanpınar. What is more difficult to understand is why Turkish literature takes up less space on readers’ bookshelves than Russian works.

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