By Moris Farhi
Arcade Publishing, 392 pages, $25.
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Toward the end of Moris Farhi’s elegiac, ambitious novel, a professor of literature who is the voice of Turkish conscience in the book tells a budding Turkish Jewish writer: “One thing, young Turk: Don’t lose the young Jew. Cherish everybody’s difference. If we all become the same, we’re bound to perish.”
Today, the sentiment may sound familiar — pat, even. We live in an era of multiculturalism, in which the myth of the American melting pot has been replaced by that of the “gorgeous mosaic.” No longer do actors and musicians change their names to sound less “ethnic.” Today, at least in theory, diversity is strength.
Yet, only two generations ago the dream of most Jews was to shed their old ways and assimilate. This was not unique to the American experience; in the wake of emancipation, the dominant question among Western European Jewry was to what extent the Jew should, or could, shed his Jewishness in order to become a proper Frenchman, German or Dutchman. It was taken for granted that the former was necessary for the latter.
“Young Turk,” partly based on Farhi’s own life growing up in Turkey in the 1940s, is a nostalgic glimpse into a world in which nationalism celebrated diversity instead of demanding its subjugation. It would seem that Farhi, like most Turks, has a rosy-eyed view of his mother country and of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In his tales, Muslims, Jews, Greeks and even Donmeh — Jews who “turned” to Islam but remained secretly loyal to Turkish Jewish messiah Shabbetai Tzvi — mix freely, intermingling and intermarrying in a highly multicultural milieu. To hear Farhi tell it — and he does, frequently, in asides that read more like political treatises than narrative — the Turkey envisioned by its founder was a truly pluralistic society, and was spoiled first by World War II and then by the repressive regimes of the 1950s.
“Young Turk” is structured as a series of short stories, told by first-person narrators whose ages increase as the book (and time) progresses. At first, the book has the feel of magic realism; the first tale, for example, concerns a young Jewish girl who has the gift (or curse) of clairvoyance. Not surprisingly, given Farhi’s mostly male adolescent narrators, sexual awakening is a dominant theme: Vivid descriptions of female genitalia appear on more than half of the book’s first 100 pages, from a boy’s furtive looks at nude women in the hammam to the book’s erotic climax, the details of which are far too lurid for these pages, except perhaps to say that rose-petal jam plays a prominent role. Even Death is said to possess “a perfect oval vagina, wide open like the Creator’s mouth.” Indeed.
When Farhi’s narrators are not having sex or fantasizing about it, they are constantly telling stories. Reading “Young Turk” is like having dinner at your grandparents’ house; if you’re waiting for the old stories to be over, it’s going to be a long few hours. If you’re willing to indulge, though, your patience often will be rewarded. By far, the most gripping part of the book is its first half, which takes place in and around World War II. At first, the Nazi Holocaust is far removed from the shores of Istanbul. But not for long. Soon, Farhi’s characters become enmeshed in the massacre of Salonika’s Jewish inhabitants; in Turkey’s own racist “wealth tax,” which caused many Jews and other minorities to be sent to prison camps to work off their “debts,” and in the tumultuous time before Turkey joined the Allies (very late in the war), when it was being courted avidly by both sides. Farhi’s tales are genuinely moving, and his characters’ adventures shed light on a part of Jewish history about which many American Jews (this reviewer included) know quite little.
But “Young Turk” grows more and more didactic. Its characters increasingly sound like politicians, railing against corruption and — like Farhi himself — campaigning for free expression. Perhaps Farhi’s wistful narrative style is better suited to the lost world of prewar Turkey — seen through the eyes of children — than to the noble but ultimately less artistically interesting struggles of writers, dissidents and poets. Even in the earlier stories, though, Farhi’s children are never quite believable. To take but one example, we are asked to believe that a 16-year-old girl, in a love letter to a boy lost (and surely killed) during a rescue mission in Greece, has written: “The founders of this new Turkey, proposing, almost in Marxist terms, a democratic people’s state devoted to state socialism, decided that, in order to achieve this objective, the people needed a fresh identity that would shed its imperial past.” This is an interesting history, but it doesn’t sound like any 16-year-old I know.
Ultimately, all the voices in all the tales belong to Farhi himself. Despite their allegedly wide range of ages, backgrounds, and genders, all the narrators in “Young Turk” manifest the same love of Turkish heritage, the same dismay for its present corruption, and the same penchant for melodic prose and long back-story. The reader must decide for herself whether to forgive this literary shortcoming in order to learn about a world she otherwise might never discover. In works of nostalgia such as this, perhaps such sins may be forgiven.
Salman Rushdie once said: “Roots, I sometimes think, are a conservative myth, designed to keep us in our places.” Clearly, Farhi disagrees. In the voice of his professor-hero, he says, “You can neither change your roots nor transplant them. So be proud of them. Relish them.” In a way, “Young Turk” is a love letter to a unique Diaspora identity — one that, for a time anyway, held out the possibility that one might be both cosmopolitan and ethnically rooted, both wholly Turkish and wholly Jewish. Until, as happens to most of Farhi’s narrators, the dream was destroyed.
Jay Michaelson is the chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture (www.zeek.net).