As I have been reading thrillers lately I thought it might be worthwhile to throw in some with an international flavor. So I added Selcuk Altun’s Songs My Mother Never Taught Me to the reading list. It turned out to be an interesting reading experience, but hard to get a handle on.
The simple plot belies the novels complexity, but here is Booklist’s quick take:
This latest Turkish import, set in Istanbul, is written entirely in the first person, from the points of view of the two main characters, Arda, a child of privilege and a smothering mother, and Bedirhan, an orphan turned assassin. The reader is rapidly drawn into the innermost thoughts and feelings of both characters, as Arda decides how to live his life after the death of his mother, and Bedirhan vows to get out of the assassin business. The tension is gradually ratcheted up as Arda discovers his father was assassinated and sets out to hunt for the killer, even as the reader learns of the strangely intertwined lives of Arda and Bedirhan.
You could easily imagine a typical thriller with this setup. Alternating first person chapters leading the reader on a quest to figure out how these two characters are connected and racing to find the conclusion/resolution.
But the novel never had that thriller feel for me.
What’s happening has the hallmarks of a thriller or crime novel, but not the tone, which in Altun’s novel is light rather than tense, with numerous literary references that are at least in part clues to the author’s intentions (the references include Grahame Greene but also Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster, and the title is a reference to music by Dvorak). Among Turkish novels widely available in English, Altun resembles crime novelist Mehmet Murat Somer (even though Somer’s novels are frequently comic) than the postmodern novels of Orhan Pamuk (though Altun’s tone is lighter and more playful than Pamuk’s). Fairly early in the novel, Arda mentions a family friend named SelÃ§uk Altun, a banker and novelist. That bit of metafiction becomes more important in the last third of the novel, when Altun becomes a puppetmaster within the novel, as well as its author, giving a series of clues about Bedirhan in the form of locations around Istanbul. Arda’s quest becomes an unconventional tour of the city and its history rather than a hot pursuit of the killer.
In its basic form the plot may seem like a thriller but is just doesn’t read that way. It really isn’t that suspenseful or mysterious or tense. Altun’s light style and meta-fictional bent give it a literary feel; even if rambling and discursive one at times.
Much of the subject matter is more traditionally literary as well: his relationship with his mother growing up and his change in perspective after her death; his infatuation with a neighbor girl and his coming to terms with their platonic relationship as adults; his feeling about his dad now that both his parents are gone; etc. Altun brings a very psychological focus to these relationships; as if Arda’s telling of the story is therapeutic – Arda on the couch.
But these threads are all weaved into the larger mystery of who killed his father and why. And Altun inserts himself as a character into the story to guide Arda through a series of clues. This takes the reader through an exploration of Istanbul’s architecture, culture, and history.
If you get the sense there is a lot going on, despite the short length, you are right. This was a book that had the feel of one I should re-read. The first time you are just getting a sense of the lay of the land. In a second reading, I could pick up on the literary references more and enjoy the detailed explorations of the city. I often feel that way with layered or complex works whose style and subjects I am not familiar with.
And that brings up another point, if you don’t know anything about Turkey (its history, geography, politics, etc.) you – or at least I – feel at a disadvantage. There are clearly some arguments - point counter-point style – about the city/nation/region that would have more impact and clarity if you knew more about them.
Even with these weaknesses going in, I enjoyed reading Songs My Mother Never Taught Me. Altun has a light witty satirical style and the book is only a couple hundred pages. The two central characters are interesting and entertaining. It just didn’t quite seem to come together for me.
Anyone with an interest in Turkish literature and culture will want to check this one out. But those who enjoy a satirical meta-fictional type twist on the thriller/mystery genre will enjoy it as well.
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