Wwhile Turkey can be proud of its literary traditions – in particular of poetry heavily influenced by the forms of Persian verses – it is nevertheless a nation without its Tolstoy, Flaubert or Austen. Only in the twentieth century, when the fall of the Ottomans marked a marked inclination to the west, did the country begin to produce great novelists. Not that these writers received the acclaim they could have enjoyed elsewhere – as while the country’s film industry has become largely prominent by selling elusive versions of the country to the global audience, its novelists have asked more difficult questions, often paying their pains with state harassment, prison spells or worse. In other words, some of the books I have selected will take you to a Turkey that you will hardly know from your beach holidays.

Not that this need discourages you: if this is a literature often concerned with obscure and difficult problems – despotism, domestic violence and minority rights, not least for Armenians – it is provided with consummate verve and distinctive style, not least by the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak and other Turkish writers are now deservedly published abroad, such as Ece Temelkuran. Expect your reading to take you to Istanbul, the undisputed center of gravity of Turkish fiction, but also to the provinces, sometimes with foreign writers. Among them are Louis de Bernieres, whose Birds Without Wings, probably his masterpiece, was inspired by a visit to the abandoned and disturbing settlement of Kayaköy on Turkey’s tourist coast.

Cover of Bastard of Istanbul

A 2006 adult novel about the Turkish teenager Asya (the title bastard) and his Armenian-American cousin Armanoush, whose visit to his relatives in Istanbul catalyzes the dramatic emergence of family secrets from Turkey’s turbulent past. Shafak’s direct treatment of the Armenian events of 1915 – for which Armanoush unfolds the term genocide without hesitation – saw her pursued in 2006 for insulting the Turk. She was spared a long period of detention only when the charges were dropped. This lively and suggestive portrait of mothers, sisters and daughters – the men of the family are mostly dragged in their 40s by a curse that persists until the end of the novel – is built into a truly shocking ending.

Cotton harvesting in Çukurova, Turkey.



Collecting cotton in Çukurova. Photography: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Kemal’s 1958 epic is perhaps the most loved of all Turkish novels. This is an Anatolian Robin Hood, but set in the 20th century, when feudalism persisted in the remote regions of Turkey. Memed, born from poverty and slavery in the fields of thistles, descends into the mountains and raises a band of robbers to conquer local hearts, regain the beloved captured by Memed and break the grip of the unfair club Agha (Ladies). A hymn to freedom and social justice, this classic is steeped in the soil and tradition of the southern region of Çukurova, Turkey, where Kemal grew up.

Cover of Human Landscapes from my country


This epic verse novel was largely written in prison, where Nazim, as Turkey’s greatest modern poet is universally known, spent much of his life; it was not published in Turkey until Nazim’s death in 1963 and published only in English in its entirety in 2002. Boldly experimental, with vivid vignettes of Turkish life delivered in a fractured cinematic style, Nazim’s masterpiece escapes from a train traveling between Istanbul and Ankara in a steppe prison, a hospital, battlefields, bedrooms and elsewhere. A stimulating reading, Human Landscapes nevertheless adds a magnificent portrait not only of ordinary and often marginalized Turkish life, always at the center of Nazim’s art, but of the 20th century. A committed communist who died in exile, Nazim remains a dividing figure in modern Turkey. But even those who distinguish him as a national traitor do not deny the power of his writing, at its peak in these pages.

The towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

Uzungol landscape in Trabzon Turkey.



Landscape of Uzungol in Trabzon. Photograph: Muamer Osmanbegovic / Alamy

It is a tribute to a novel with such an extravagant premise: a train of camels of intellectuals from the High Church to Trebizond (Mediterranean Sea) of Trabzon, who have various intentions to write travel books, convert pagan locals and free their women , and defect of the Soviets – which seems to speak more illuminatingly about Turkey than any number of non-fiction diaries. There is much to admire in the details of the landscapes, in the author’s patent affection for his characters – even in the parts to be trampled on – and in the unmistakable mix of farce and melancholy. His 1956 Macaulay novel, his latest, is a period piece that strikes in a unique and fun way that not only evokes 1950s Turkey, but at the same time brilliantly reveals love, sex and solitude.

Children play in the snow in the city of Kars.



Children play in the snow in the city of Kars. Photography: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Istanbul was the setting for most of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, is home to his extraordinary Museum of Literary Innocence and inspired his acclaimed childhood memory. But Snow (2002) takes Pamuk as far away from his hometown as possible by staying in the east of Turkey to the remote border town of Kars. In other respects, however, this is certainly not a departure from the imaginary world of the Pamuk brand. In Kars, to report on an epidemic of suicides among young women, a journalist poet finds himself trapped in a network of dark politics and his emotional attachments while a snowstorm falls, cutting the city from the outside world. This exploration of secularism and Islamic extremism finds the Turkish literary colossus in its deepest and most disturbing form.

cover for wingless birds

This 2004 novel by the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, perhaps it stands as the great epic of Turkey at the end of the empire. The setting is a provincial Mediterranean city at the beginning of the 20th century where different communities – Turkish, Greek and Armenian – coexist as they have done for centuries. But wars raging across the country – there are graphic evocations of life in the trenches during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 – signal the end of the Ottoman Empire and an epochal change. The richly interpreted cast of De Bernieres – goatherd and peasant woman, imam and agha – falls in love and goes to war while the author offers a brilliant history lesson on the end of Ottoman cosmopolitanism, not least the tragic population exchanges that in 1923 called time on Christianity in Anatolia.

coverage regulatory institution of the time

A hilarious tragicomedy, Tanpinar’s great novel (1954; translated into English in 2014) is a ruthless sending of the 20th century reforms that have begun to remake the Turks as Westerners. The objective of the novel is the titular institution whose Orwellian objective is to align the country’s clocks and thus correct the citizens’ casually oriental attitude towards timekeeping. This pungent and timely satire, which dared to do for Ataturk what Animal Farm did for Stalin, offers a devastating comment on what Tanpinar himself described as the country’s late arrival in the modern world. The action revolves around a cast of Istanbul mavericks whose attempts to keep up with a world in a state of flux separate them between hopes for a bright future and nostalgia for a family past.

Image of Penelope welcoming her husband Ulysses home to the Iliad.



Image of Penelope welcoming her husband Ulysses home to the Iliad. Photography: Alamy

Neither a novel nor a Turk, Homer’s great war epic must be here. For this epic poem – the novel of his time – it reminds us that the land now known as Turkey has inspired the greatest stories from the beginning. The power of the Iliad remains its surprising immediacy, with the good warriors of the Greeks and Trojans falling as fodder on the flashing blades of Achilles and Hector while the gods of the two sides coexist from above to influence the events in the plains of Troy. There has rarely been such an interest in this monumental work, with a Translation 2016 by Caroline Alexander, the first of a woman, emphasizing latent themes against the war.

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin cover

Literary Istanbul is an old difficult neighborhood, full of investigators created by writers including Barbara Nadel, Selcuk Altun and – my choice – Jason Goodwin. Yashim, the star of Goodwin’s excellent historical mysteries, not only solves crimes, but is also known as an Ottoman eunuch, a cultured bohemian and a gourmet. In The Janissary Tree (2006), the first of five Yashim novels, our man investigates a series of murders that rock the Istanbul military corps in 1830, about 10 years after the Sultan massacred the Janissari, once the Elite force of the Ottoman Empire.

The Time of Mute Swans by Ece Temelkuran

Swans in the Kugulu park of Ankara.



Swans in the Kugulu park of Ankara. Director of photography: Adem Altan / Getty Images

This 2017 hit novel, set in Ankara in the 1980s, is a resonant story of two children from distinctly contrasting backgrounds whose friendship blossoms as pitched battles rage on university campuses, right-wing militias terrorize poor neighborhoods and a coup of military state looms. When Russian swans lie down in an Ankara park, the two children hatch a plot to save them from chaos.

Jeremy Seal has written several books on Turkey. His neighbor, A coup in Turkey, will be published by Chatto in 2021

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