A place with character
STEVEN HEIGHTON’S NEW NOVEL DISCOVERS A SECRET COMMUNITY IN DIVIDED CYPRUS
IT’S NOT A CHRONICLE OF THOSE YEARS IN THE MIDDLE EAST.
The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep Steven Heighton Hamish Hamilton 352 pp; $ 24.95
The solitude of a writer’s life, suggests Steven Heighton, is largely a commitment to work. Creative endeavours with words require vast time alone.
This sense of absence may shape one’s material but, Heighton adds, romantic notions about process are best avoided. His finely crafted novels, however, feature characters exiled in acts of selfpreservation, who seek to recognize something lasting and true.
The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, his fourth novel, maintains this template and demonstrates the vitality that marks his fiction, verse and criticism. Here, Elias Trifannis, who enlisted in the Canadian Forces hoping to buoy his dying father, is sent to Cyprus to recover from an atrocity committed by coalition forces in Afghanistan. A tryst with a Turkish journalist that ends in gunfire leads Elias to the restricted zone of Varosha, a resort quarter that was abandoned in 1974 due to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, where he is taken in by a motley crew of disenchanted settlers. The plot follows his subsequent stay, in the wake of reports of his death.
Presenting customary motifs of Heighton’s literary output — bonds forged in extremis, historical resonance — this volume broaches turmoil in the Middle East, also a key concept in The Waking Comes Late, his 2016 poetry collection that received the Governor General’s Literary Award. Heighton notes that a convergence of personal and political interests fostered the newly released novel. “Sometimes you get an idea for a character,” he says, reached at home in Kingston, Ont. “Or you hear someone say something. Or there’s a premise or a setting. For me, it was all those things.”
First reading about Varosha in 2011 in Alan Weisman’s book, The World Without Us, Heighton immediately saw its potential as a narrative backdrop. There was also another more personal artistic factor: after staging his novels Afterlands ( 2005) and Every Lost Country (2010) in sub-zero conditions, Heighton wanted to imagine warmer climes in long-form fiction.
He was drawn as well to explore, through writing, ties to Greece and its culture. Currently l earning the l anguage again, Heighton, born in Canada to a mother of Greek descent, has made numerous trips to his ancestral homeland, and recently volunteered with the refugee efforts on Lesbos.
He was unable to enter Varosha during a visit to Cyprus six years ago, but was escorted across the border into the country’s Turkish side thanks to a Turkish Cypriot politician who served as his guide. Obtaining similar treatment on the Greek side, Heighton, acknowledges that “Nobody was talking then about reconciliation and reunification. But they are talking about it quite seriously now.”
In the relative calm of Heighton’s Varosha, Elias struggles with the psychic wounds of deployment. “He senses the playback might go on every night for years — an unfaceable future,” Heighton writes. “Maybe it’s looping in the back of his mind twenty- four hours a day, waiting from him to re-enter the cinema of sleep.”
To vividly convey Elias’s experience in Afghanistan, Heighton consulted several members of the military but allows that dates were modified “for reasons that have to do with the economic debacle in Cyprus, and the timing of the novel. I just plead that it’s fiction,” he says. “It’s not a chronicle of those years in the Middle East.”
Though the protagonist of these pages is Elias, the character Heighton favours most is Erkan Kaya, the debonair Turkish colonel who is fully aware of both the dwellers in the restricted zone and Elias’s presence there. Concealing this information from the rest of the authorities, Kaya aims to sustain his leisurely lifestyle, especially when it risks being disrupted by a colleague’s insistence that Varosha be searched for the Canadian soldier.
External forces encroaching on self- sufficient territories are as much a signature of Heighton’s novels as the carefully considered words and observations that lend his lines their voltage. Since 2002, when he began Afterlands, a riff on the Polaris expedition, Heighton has reflected on ethnic nationalism and what he terms “issues of borders and belonging. They’ve come into the last three novels for sure,” he says. “Inevitably, I’m touching on those conflicts — sometimes in a mood of hopefulness, other times in a mood of hopelessness.”
Nightingale, he emphasizes, was constructed from obsessions, travels and memories. The latter, in particular, “self- corrupt in the same way that Varosha itself is slowly degrading and falling apart.” Ruins nevertheless can offer inspiration.
“It’s actually very useful to a fiction writer,” Heighton says. “Let your memories become overgrown with vines and creepers, and you end up with something that’s your own, that for better or worse, no one else will write.”
A public beach in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus ( TRNC) next to former, decaying hotel buildings that stand inside the Forbidden Zone of Varosha, the setting for The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep.