Reviewed by Jason Goodwin
Sunday, August 3, 2008
By Maureen Freely
Overlook. 398 pp. $24.95
Maureen Freely is best known as the English translator of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, but visitors to Istanbul may well recognize her as the daughter of John Freely, an American academic who has lived in Istanbul since the early 1960s and has written many useful guides to the city and its Ottoman past.
That biographical detail is significant because Enlightenment is partly an autobiography. It's also a psychological thriller, a murder story, a rumination on friendship and a political investigation. If that sounds like a lot of weight for a novel to carry, it is; and it's a testament to Freely's ability that the novel does, in large measure, succeed.
When the story opens, a journalist named M learns that Sinan, a left-wing filmmaker who was her lover during their student days in Istanbul, has been arrested at the U.S. border by Homeland Security; his child has been taken into foster care. Sinan's wife, Jeannie -- the woman for whom he betrayed M so many years ago -- appeals to M to publicize his case. But as M begins her own investigations, she finds herself running up against unexpected doubts, obstacles and characters from her past, including the surviving members of a left-leaning student activist group from the early 1970s. Then Jeannie disappears, leaving a 53-page document for M to read.
Enlightenment is a fluent, evocative and uncomfortable read, deliberately so. Stories overlap, testimonies conflict, even the time frame is repeatedly broken and re-arranged so that it becomes difficult to know who, if anyone, is telling the truth. M and Jeannie -- though formal rivals in love -- are, in fact, remarkably alike. At first, I found this irritating -- why two characters, when one would do? -- until I began to suspect that this splitting acts as a protective disguise for Freely herself.
Indeed, the shifting ground and viewpoints of the novel represent a layered approach to the underlying subject of Freely's narrative: the so-called "deep state" that allegedly operates behind Turkish democracy. The nature of this state-within-the-state remains unclear, but, since the cold war in the 1970s, it's been thought to involve high-ranking officials in the Turkish government and military opposed to Islamism. M begins to suspect that "extraordinary rendition" -- state kidnapping -- lies behind the disappearance of Sinan and his wife.
Political opposition very often adopts the form, in shadow, of the substance it opposes. If the deep state is ambivalent, secretive and repressive, then so too are Jeannie and her friends, forging exploitative relations among themselves. Betrayals lurk like time bombs, primed to go off decades in the future, and lies beget lies. Enlightenment is a grimly ironic title for a story in which no one survives intact.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is its exploration of identity among the group of students at Robert College in Istanbul in the early 1970s. Freely examines the dislocated loyalties of these privileged young people, living between the strictures of the Turkish state and the blandishments of Western freedoms, learning to present different faces to all the people who have influence over their lives: free-thinking American professors, uptight Turkish businessmen and omniscient secret police.
When trouble explodes -- in this case, with the assassination of the Israeli consul -- the American students can leave, but the Turkish students become targets of the new military government, in spite of their connections with Jeannie's father, a CIA man who emerges, curiously enough, as the most sympathetic character in the novel.
This is a story almost impossible to summarize but hard to forget. It's remarkable for its descriptions of the city as it was in the 1970s and as it is now, after the break-up of the Soviet Union has released so much energy around the area. Freely is an almost perversely original writer, sharply observing the world she knows so well and upending all one's suppositions and assumptions. One example I found touching: Her grown-up student radicals do not shower their youthful selves with middle-aged reproof; they still crackle with energy and purpose. Enlightenment may be too long and, at times, too opaque to win the audience it deserves, but it is a brave, unflinching work of art. ·
Jason Goodwin is the author of "Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire" and "The Janissary Tree," a novel.