Visiting another country is an opportunity to be introduced to new authors, to read outside one’s preferred genre and to gain new historical perspectives. So while I am already a fan of the more well-known in the English language writers, Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, Ahmet Ümit was completely unknown to me and while mystery isn’t my preferred genre, a book that introduces us to new places and offers insights into other cultures and their way of life is certainly appealing.
I asked in the bookshop in Istanbul for A Memento of Istanbul, another book written by Ahmet Ümit, but it wasn’t available. The only book they had in English by him, had to be retrieved from the basement. I’m not sure if that is significant or not, although having got to the end of the book and knowing the controversy surrounding the treatment of the Armenian population within Turkey, allowing his characters to thrash out their opposing views,may have courted controversy.
In 2012 France tried to make denial of the Armenian Genocide a criminal offence, souring relations between the two countries, however the draft law was struck down.
Patasana was the son and grandson of a palace scribe, who wrote his story and that of his father and grandfather onto tablets that were then sealed and are now being uncovered 2700 years later.
Each alternate chapter is a translation of one of the tablets, so while we follow the contemporary story of the archaeological dig of an antique Hittite settlement in southeast Anatolia and it’s team members, we also learn what Patasana lived through, the confessions of a young scribe, his life, love and regrets.
“He was the chief scribe of the palace, a very important government position among the Hittites. These men were extremely well-educated. They knew several languages. Their duty was to compose texts as dictated by the king, not to write down their own feelings, thoughts and memories. But that didn’t keep the scribe Patasana from writing down his own story. That’s why the tablets are so important….We believe what we have here is the earliest documentation of humankind’s non-official history….We think he’s telling the story of the ancient city’s final days. And together with the history of the city, his own personal history as well.”
Unsure whether it is related to the dig or not, a local elder is discovered dead, having fallen, or been pushed from the minaret of the mosque, a man in monks clothes seen fleeing the scene. Esra, the leader of the team is paranoid about upsetting locals and having her first dig cancelled before they have uncovered all the tablets and participated in an important press conference being held to satisfy their funders. Her insistence on knowing everything and getting close to the police captain makes her just as suspicious as virtually every character who at one time or other she imagines as a suspect.
Whilst it could have done with some editing down, it is an enjoyable and I believe popular book. It is interesting that the author was born in Gaziantep, southern Antolia and while on a family picnic near the Euphrates River saw an excavation site, an old Hittite city, prompting him to immerse himself in researching the area, its people and customs and then write this book.
Ahmet Ümit himself sounds like an interesting character straight from a novel and it is clear that his own life has inspired many of the stories and characters he has written. As a young man he was a revolutionary political activist and a member of the Turkish Communist Party and he illegally attended the Academy for Social Science for a while in Moscow.
In an interview with Maria Eliades in Time Out Istanbul in 2011 he said:
“In this land, there’s a problem with history. The Turks came here 1,000 years ago but the land has a history that is 200,000 years old. Generally, the government believes that history began 1,000 years ago. They do not count the history of people who were not Muslim. In my novels, I’m trying to show how these people influenced the history and where their position was. I’m trying to emphasize how the Hittites, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Armenians, Greeks and all the different groups affected it. Turkey needs this: an independent view of people, regardless of their race or religion. That’s the basis of my books. The detective part of the story is a catalyst for explaining the untold part of the stories.”