The Realist’s Morning Prayer & Other Turkish Delights
By Karen Elliot.
Today In History by Ahmet Ogut
“Parodying the format of a regular newspaper column, Today in History presents a series of drawings and paraphrased stories, extracted from Turkish newspapers from the last four decades. The news stories are sometimes poetic, sometimes overtly political, and sometimes strangely surreal. Dislocated from their original context and presented as an artist’s impression, the work reveals a changing society, and questions what we perceive to be news and the construction of truth, fiction and history.”
There is a slow dream emerging from this little book. It is a memory book, but the memories are structured as terminal dreams we had, or memories of disjunctive books we had adults read to us when we were children and they are now regained in slow motion, with enough time to count to ten in between each page, fine-grained enough to disturb and vague enough to slip and slide around afterwards, changing shape in the head. The illustrations are like some books for a child in the early Sixties, well before digital images. Some of the stories are from that decade too and yet they all seem like analogue stories not digital. It is a book that moves the furniture around your head. The grey monochrome of the pictures is quite touching. They are like remaindered illustrations from Ladybird books. They make you read humbly. This is a requirement of the whole book because there is a spell it is working which makes you stop and slow everything down to an oppressive murmur. It is despair that fills the time and a wry humour that connects you to the humane joke. The joke is that of being a loser. The enhanced bleakness of atmosphere and mood is like that found in Aki Kaurismaki’s film Lights in the Dust.
Chirico painted spaces where time was trapped and would never escape. When Penguin Books issued Kafka, one of the titles had a Chirico painting on its cover in the Seventies. The Thirties train stations in Italy all work like Chirico paintings; the blank hot windows that run across them and the idea of termination that always locks into station buildings of any stripe makes them the spinal architecture of modernity’s most monstrous waking dreams. It is the terrible physical despair and biological loneliness of Chirico that this book captures. Chirico used manikins and the angles of sunlight on buildings casting nightmarish shadows onto blank squares. Ogut casts his out onto empty pages with meme genes of journalistic mal dit. It is the combination of a minimalised Turkish and English text with a lurid yellow and black soft cover combined with the greying, indicative and over-literal drawn illustrations that evokes a singularly moribund and exquisitely apposite emotional response. Politics chokes on its respect for the simple encounters with modernism that the stories often tell.
The anguish of space-time supplants at first glance the hunger for the sensational and irrational. It then nourishes it through a weird anticipation of psychic crisis the book embodies. This is a spinal column of dark madness and it is a threat to sanity because there is nothing to protect us from it. The superb ridiculousness of the factual, the madness of the sanity that Ogut exposes, is confirmation of the brutalising tendencies of official and bureaucratic sub-narratives the book forces itself to carry. When sponsored by policemen, journalism becomes an illumination of fog where everything is lost. The atmosphere is of inquisition requisitioned by the torturer’s quid pro quo. Ogut’s work produces the effect of precise accusation.
Turkey has always been a nationalism of Asia that, like that of Japan and India, holds certain key features of value, two of which are constitutionalism and genuine elections. Today in History feels like the Seventies never finished. It is like a sequence of jokes, but similarity is not identity no matter how close the alliance. The humour is left in its box maybe because in between each page is an awful presentiment of an unspoken horror, a fear that lingers in silence and invisibility. It is as if behind one of Chirico’s walls a hangman is striding through the hot bland sun with a rope and a hoop and something about him will scare us shitless. Maybe he is twelve years old and this is not the first time.
There is a spare quality to the book that leaves a vacant feeling floating around its edges, the feeling that repeats itself rather like Turkey keeps having to repeat democracy. In the words of Ernest Gellner, “Others only abolish democracy once: the Turkish army has done so repeatedly”. And so the despair is rooted in this distinct quality of repetition, of the absurd constitutive elements that Ogut organises in these brief but damning pages.
Is Ogut part of the Turkish elite worrying about how to stop the Anatolian peasants and petty bourgeoisie from voting for the religious parties? Or is he counting the cost of everyone worrying like that? The awkward backwardness of the news reflects the Kemalist purifications of the strong-armed brain working to maintain the secular state in the face of Ottoman realpolitik. It is a funny and sad book, a counting text for something working close to the skin of spiritual tragedy, an abacus of discontent. But the comic template hinted at in nature of the history it tells suggests that there is a moral climate enabling satire to announce itself, that there are possibilities of release. The toleration of the book, its publication in Istanbul as well as the UK, is a sign that perhaps the drab foolishness can be overcome and that imagination is not yet dead, imagine.
In the dream of the Kemalist fatwa, the lurid inner scape of High Islam, the dissolving whirlpool of Anatolian Enlightenment, hajj dreams of the interior id, the lost ansar of Kemal, in the glum news that seeps like a night emission of the continuation of the one twin macho and the eradication of the other twin sufi , what this history brings is a sign from the frontier of this landscape which has the upper layers of society secularised but the rest, and vast majority, untouched. Kemalism is no longer held in the ulama spirit and other kinds of Islam are being forgrounded in attempts to bind the nation into a new synthesis; Nurci folk mysticism working to blend itself with the print journalism of a modern secular state and so too the Anatolian Alevi. Elsewhere perhaps small-town Turkey blending Kemalist republicanism with urban Islam is the real deal, as potent and steady a reality as small-town America’s blending of Secular republicanism with Christianity.
The strangeness of the book reflects the strangeness of this politics where democracy threatens to vote itself out of existence and military dictatorship continually defends democracy. The absurdity of a politics of Escher-like paradox brings about the blank surrealism of the book. And the role of the journalist is acknowledged through this sly piece as being essential.
TS Eliot wrote about the “compost of newspaper sensations and prejudice” whilst defending the right of D.F.C. Fuller to be considered a democrat. Fuller it was who wrote secret reports for Goebbels and Himmler and attended a birthday party for Adolf Hitler. Ogut is arguing against the illiberal prejudiced instinct of a certain English literary culture that does not root itself in a dissenting vernacular by creating a text that picks up on Hegel’s remark that the daily newspaper is the “realist’s morning prayer”. The immediacy of journalism is what Eliot and his gang despise. It is instructive and depressing to reflect on the news values of current journalism in the UK where glamour and shock value trump all other values, in particular narrative complexity. The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, in which British troops are directly engaged, is sparsely covered even though the fighting in both is as fierce as anything experienced since Korea. So Ogut’s text reminds us of something that is about more than just its Turkish context. The last story from the book, dated the 19th January, 2007, is instructive and depressing: “Hrant Dink [pictured above] is the 62nd journalist to have been murdered in Turkey since 1909”.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 8th, 2007.