The Bridge of the Golden Horn, Emine Sevgi Özdamar (trans. Martin Chalmers). Serpent’s Tail. 320pp, $15.95.
Consider Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s The Bridge of the Golden Horn a kind of bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist as a young migrant worker as it were. The plot threads are familiar: discontented young woman leaves home to seek her fortune; she encounters resistance; she overcomes obstacles; she is transformed. In this case, the unnamed narrator, with dreams of becoming an actor, lies about her age to get a job so she can pay for drama school. At sixteen she leaves Turkey for Germany where she works on an assembly line installing radio valves. The novel goes on to detail four topsy-turvy years of the young woman’s ping-ponging back and forth between Berlin and Istanbul. In Berlin, she and her coworkers “lived in a single picture: fingers, the neon light, the tweezers, the little radio valves and their spider legs. The picture had its own voices, detached selves from the voices of the world and from own bodies. The spine disappeared, the breasts disappeared, the hair on one’s head disappeared.”
Though The Bridge is certainly set in sundry dreary places, it is not the usual catalog of critiques against mindless work, oppressive government, and dehumanizing bureaucracy (although it succeeds in doing that, if inadvertently). It is instead a collection of often obtuse reveries about self, family, friends, work, and everything around. The book’s often desultory settings are enlivened by a cast of vividly drawn characters and the hero’s own skewed perception of things, a perception marked by childlike free-association that later gives way to a kind of buoyant satire.
The Bridge of the Golden Horn’s thinly veiled autobiography concentrates on the intellectual, the artistic, and, particularly, the sexual awakening of the young protagonist. It follows her peripatetic life, one preoccupied with sexuality, theater, literature, and radical politics. Shadowing Özdamar’s own life, the protagonist travels from Istanbul to work in a factory in Berlin, and, like Özdamar, she returns to Turkey to study Brechtian theater. The hero wants to “live poetically . . . to awaken the passive life of [her] intelligence.” She believes that her virginity is one obstacle to that awakening. The hero’s slow, often ambivalent, and at turns almost methodical approach toward losing her “diamond,” her “maidenhead,” is usually depicted at a remove, with cool, tempered prose. At other times, Özdamar’s novel brims with rapturous flights and sometimes veers toward fabulist heights, but ironically, these moments are usually reserved for mundane observations and events.
The Bridge of the Golden Horn is built of densely packed paragraphs where sentences slither and writhe; often taking time to develop, these sentences are congested with repetitive words and phrases, and they unspool just short of unraveling completely from within Özdamar’s long, sprawling paragraphs. Özdamar’s prose resists quoting, and it defies a reviewer’s efforts to encapsulate her style. Here is a representative passage:
The snow had made the city a little more merciful. . . . It fell softly, so softly that the time, when one was writing a letter or sewing on a button, also became softer. The holes of the button, the thread and the needle, the pencil in a hand moving across a white sheet of paper, always promised silence when it was snowing outside. The steam of boiling water or of the hot water that splashed on a body in the bathroom formed a bond with the snow. One saw the snow, one saw the objects, pans, pots, soap, the tables, the quilts, the shoes, a book on the bed. The snow said that we are born with it and will live only with it. We will rinse the pans in the room, it will be snowing outside, we will pull back the quilts, it will be snowing outside, we will sleep, and it will be snowing outside, and when we wake up, it will be the first thing we see. We will see it from the bus, from the factory window, the snow will fall into the black canals, make the heads of the ducks white. We could leave our footprints in it. . . . The snow could embrace one and create spaces in which silence could expand. Now it was gone.
Reading such prose feels like being inside of a snow globe, that feeling of breathless serenity and overwhelming encasement under a dome. One feels the power of Özdamar’s prose as coming from its thick and cascading accumulation of sentences. Indeed, like the snow that the narrator indelibly describes, Özdamar’s passages “embrace one and create spaces in which silence could expand.” But even within this silence the characters are surrounded by so much city static and industrial noise. The hero’s attempts at learning German from newspaper headlines sounds like clack clack clack. A couple’s “kiss voices” slurp slurp, punched-in timecards tink tink tink, a pocket watch goes tick tack tick tack, a faucet drips into a sink tip tip tip, church bells dong dong dong.
In his introductory essay to The Bridge John Berger writes that “since their beginning, stories have pretended to take place far away. Faraway and once-upon-a-time are code words for Here and Now. Just as information is the opposite of stories, informers are the opposite of storytellers. When a story is being retold every word becomes a code-word describing a Here and Now.” Stripped of its dense meditations and tangential, extended asides (but why would anyone want to cut these out?), The Bridge is, at heart, a fairy tale. In Özdamar’s novel, its “once-upon-a-time” is the age of a young woman’s innocence, the “faraway” is a long lost Istanbul. Germany is its “here” peopled with a wide and colorful cast that includes two sisters who wear “pale blue dressing gowns of electrified material,” an opera singer, a girl saving up for a breast reduction operation, a plainclothes policewoman, a Baudelaire-quoting engineering student, a Communist hostel warden, her crazed drama teachers, an exile from Greece’s Fascist dictatorship, and assorted lovers, pseudo-intellectuals, activists, and artists. Every encounter leads toward increasing the protagonist’s emotional, political, and cultural awareness. The novel’s “now” is a desultory time of war, political upheaval, economic uncertainty. It is the tumultuous late 1960s. The Vietnam War is on everyone’s minds. It is a “now” of trying to bring order to the chaos through books, in this case, pocket-sized copies of works by Baudelaire, Brecht, Marx, Engels, Shakespeare, and Lorca.
The namesake bridge of the novel’s title refers to the The Galata Bridge that spans Istanbul’s Golden Horn. Özdamar’s novel is part of a rich artistic legacy honoring the bridge, one that includes engravings, paintings, poetry, and theater. It was first built in the sixth century and as great an artist as Leonardo da Vinci was solicited for a redesign by Sultan Bayezid II. (His design was rejected.) The bridge in Özdamar’s novel is the fourth Galata Bridge, and throughout the novel Özdamar draws on the vast symbolic legacy of this marvel that bridges two disparate cultures. She writes:
I walked towards the Bridge of the Golden Horn, which links the two European parts of Istanbul. . . . The many ships beside the bridge gleamed in the sun. The long shadows of the people walking across the Bridge . . . fell on to the ships from both sides of the bridge and walked along their white bodies. Sometimes the shadow of a street dog or donkey also fell there, black on white. After the last ship the shadows of people and animals fell on to the sea and kept walking there. Across these shadows flew the seagulls with their white wings, their shadows also fell on the water, and their cries mingled with the ships’ sirens and the cries of the street sellers. As I walked across the bridge, it seemed to me as if I had to push the air ahead of me with my hands. Everything moved very slowly, as in an overexposed, old slow-motion film.
The Bridge of the Golden Horn was selected as part of English PEN’s “Writers in Translation” series and was awarded a grant because of its “clear link” to PEN’s aims; namely, to “explore a freedom of expression or human rights issue” and “contribute in some way toward inter-cultural understanding through illuminating an aspect of another country or culture.” Such links are forged in passages like the above—filled with lyrical assonances and soft repetition detailing shadow-play on the sea—as well as the often picaresque narrative as a whole. The book, like the bridge, fosters cultural reciprocity and understanding, ultimately leading toward understanding the tension between separation and intimacy, confusion and discovery, mystery and awareness. The wonderful and confident translation from the German is yet another bridge, one that ultimately brings reader and writer that much closer, and makes this reader yearn for the final installment in the trilogy, with hopes that it too is translated by Martin Chalmers.
John Madera is a writer living in New York City. He reviews for Bookslut and blogs at hitherandthithering waters and My Pet Earworm.
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