Grim truths as betrayals unravel and lives shatter
MYSTICS seek enlightenment, bringing spiritual liberation. European liberals placed it at the basis of political freedom. But Maureen Freely’s Enlightenment provides only a dark understanding of betrayal and alienation.
It is set in Turkey, an old theatre of foreign intrigue and domestic violence. During World War I, John Buchan wrote of a vast Islamic plot, inspired by German spies, to destroy the British and Russian empires. During World War II, republican Turkey was a prize for its position and its minerals. During the Cold War it was in the front line and Istanbul was filled with spies and domestic insurgents of the Left and Right. They melted into a city of outsiders: Christian missionaries, Russian emigres and Western expatriates.
In the 19th century American missionaries founded two schools in Istanbul, one for girls and the other, Robert College, for boys. In the 20th century these merged as an Englishspeaking university. Situated on the banks of the Bosporus, it is made beautiful in spring by the purple blossoms of the Judas tree.
The Judas tree blooms a lot in Enlightenment , the perfectly named ornament of a landscape of betrayal. In Robert College in the 1970s, Turkish and American students studied side by side. But the Turks had extra classes in history, Turkish literature and military science that followed the unbending prescriptions of the Turkish ministry of education. The American curriculum encouraged intellectual inquiry, the Turkish system required dogmatic obedience.
For the Turkish students, their American teachers brought intellectual freedom and radicalised them; but for Turkish radicals the US was an imperialist tyranny, backing a repressive government. Students and teachers were caught in a web of conflicting loyalties as a terrorist war raged on Turkish university campuses.
Enlightenment begins with the arrival of Jeannie Wakefield, the daughter of the chief American spy in Istanbul. She falls in with a group of Turkish left- wing students, and in love with one of them, Sinan. As the violence increases and repression intensifies, someone identifies an apparent informer among them who has betrayed them to the secret police. He is cut up and thrown in a trunk into the Bosporus. Some of the group are imprisoned and tortured but Jeannie leaves Turkey and only returns in the ’ 90s. She marries her old lover, now a left- wing filmmaker, and has his child.
After September 11, 2001, Sinan’s revolutionary past destroys him. He is arrested while visiting America and disappears, perhaps extraordinarily rendered back to Turkey. When Jeannie also disappears trying to find him, their child is taken into care. This prompts an American foundation to hire a journalist to find out what happened.
The story is told through her account and Jeannie’s diaries. Layer upon layer of betrayal and pretence warps everyone’s judgment and confuses perceptions. The unsolved trunk murder is a key both to past and present, and the war on Turkish left- wing terrorism of the ’ 70s transmutes into the global war on terror. Although enlightenment comes, after a fashion, it is neither hopeful nor positive, but grim.
Enlightenment is entirely convincing. Like her narrator, Freely grew up in Robert College during the ’ 70s and her father taught there. Yet this is not a disguised autobiography or history. Freely knows about novel- writing: she translates into English the books of Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for literature last year. This bleak book is a real novel about the emotions and deadening qualities of betrayal and repression. It is quite excellent. Richard Pennell is al- Tajir lecturer in Middle Eastern history at the University of Melbourne.