Thursday, May 01, 2008

Book review!

Turkish author Asli Erdogan is speaking in NYC over the next couple of days. I wrote a review of her latest novel, The City in Crimson Cloak (Soft Skull), but I got too distracted by homework to do anything with it, so instead I'll start a new trend and make my glob vaguely timely. Here you go!

The City in Crimson Cloak
by Asli Erdogan
Translated by Amy Spangler
Soft Skull/Counterpoint

People fend off death in all kinds of ways, usually after they've done their best to court it. Take for example Asli Erdogan's heroine, Ozgur, a stubborn Turkish girl who throws herself into the slums of Rio de Janeiro and refuses to leave, though she knows the city will kill her.

We know it, too. The novel introduces us to Ozgur on the last day of her life, but even if it didn't say so on the cover, you'd be able to guess from the fever-dream intensity of her language that this girl is not long for the world. Erdogan packs her small novel with sensuous, hypnotic and hyperrealistic evocations of Rio -- squalor, heat, paranoia, drugs, noise, corpse-lined streets -- that make Ozgur's dark attachment to the city convincing. She hates the place, but she's transfixed. The fragmented story never clearly explains why she's there to begin with, but one thing you know right away is that she's not the kind of girl to walk away from a fight. And in Rio she finds herself an epic battleground and a gargantuan foe.

Ignoring her mother's long-distance pleas to come home, Ozgur lurks in her spartan room, smoking, fuming and writing. She's out of money, and she's lost touch with her friends. She's an angry girl alone in a dangerous city. Going home would be too easy. Worse, it would be a concession to the rules, an implicit acknowledgement that young girls should behave themselves, that certain places are simply unlivable, that there's no point in struggling against the way things are. Instead, with a thin notebook as her only weapon, Ozgur sets out to tame the city, to remake it according to her own vision. The novel she is writing serves as correction, accusation and lament.

"I wrote," Ozgur explains, "because I could find no other cover, no other protection against death in this city which puts a value on human life of ten to four hundred dollars per head."

The book is short but not slight. Ozgur/Erdogan writes as if she wants to grab the reader by the collar, shake him awake and then slam his face into each metaphor to make sure he gets it. Sometimes she almost loses control of language: "The violence that had grown in her heart like a stalagmite ever since she'd begun to live in this city frequently took over the reins to her being," she writes early on in the book. But the mixed metaphor actually fits here -- in a city as physically and spiritually chaotic as Erdogan's Rio, you can believe that a geological feature might seize the reins and drive a person headlong into disaster.

The stories Ozgur records in her notebook are, she tells us, "just phenomena that I've selected to replace reality, lies to lick my wounds... A few glimmering twitches in an ocean of darkness. Tremulous, plain, enchanted..."

Before long, fiction ripens into prophecy: the things she describes begin happening to her. Ozgur started writing in order to tame the city, but inevitably, the city takes over. Erdogan, a Turkish human-rights activist who has served on the PEN American Center's Writers in Prison Committee, might not have intended her second novel to be an allegory for the creative struggle, but reading it that way is no stretch.

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