Grim truths as be­tray­als un­ravel and lives shat­ter

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard Pennell

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.

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