Songs My Mother Never Taught Me - Selçuk Altun, Ruth Christie, Selçuk Berilgen
Songs My Mother Never Taught Me is narrated alternately by Arda, a rich and coddled young man, and Bedirhan, a professional assassin who, as it turns out, killed Arda’s father as his first job. Their lives mirror each other, bound together by coincidence and similarity as well as events, the one coming into his own as the other declines. Both are booklovers, but while Arda uses reading to enhance his life, such as finding his thoughts expressed in apt quotes, the lonely Bedirhan lives entirely in books. (The constant talk of reading in the novel, besides dropping the names of a wide variety of world authors, told me about some quite interesting-sounding Turkish authors.) The killer grows increasingly dissatisfied with his narrow life, as well as plagued by conscience, and decides to become Arda’s secret guardian and mentor, also encouraging the young man’s search for his father’s murderer, so that the two of them can finally come face to face.

The novel is also a tour of Istanbul’s neighborhoods and historic monuments, spiced up by social criticism that claims the modern inhabitants are unworthy of their city’s history. The author includes himself as a character with a knowing wink, paradoxically emphasizing the outlandishness of events by claiming to document how he "knows" about them.

So far, so entertaining. But the more I think about this book, the more I find an ugly misogyny in its premise and all through it. When Arda first meets his beautiful girlfriend, she has an independent career and an independent life. It’s only when she’s tamed by eternal gratitude that he feels he can marry her (it’s as soap-opera as possible: she’s in a car accident that mutilates her face, causing her to feel that she can never be seen in public again, but he uses his wealth to get the world’s best plastic surgeon to restore her beauty, and pulls strings to have her hired at his company after she’s fired from hers). More centrally, the whole book is about Arda finding his manhood again after losing it to his overprotective mother, whose death opens the first page. I at first thought that he would get free of her influence by refusing to hire a killer to carry out revenge, as she did, instead eschewing violence. But no, her ghost vanishes when he proves that he can kill with his own hands. "I couldn’t bear her coming between us [him and the man he would kill], accusing me of weakness and squealing like a child. Very slowly, as though I was stroking a thoroughbred’s rump, I pulled the trigger of the Webley..." I don’t usually buy the idea of guns as phallic symbols, but in this book, it’s inescapable. Besides the above final assertion that Arda’s castrating mother has not made him impotent, note that he begins learning to shoot at the same time as he meets his first real girlfriend. And as in his bibliophilia, Bedirhan goes too far to the extreme, entirely substituting guns and killing for sex.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend this book with much enthusiasm, in spite of its cleverness. Furthermore, the prose of the English translation is often infelicitous, presumably the fault of the translator.