In Turkey, recently imprisoned writer Ahmet Altan is a giant cultural figure. His novel “Endgame” sold more than 250,000 copies there when it was published in 2013. To put that in perspective, Jonathan Franzen’s most recent book, “Purity,” sold less than half that in the United States with a national population that’s four times as large. Now, Alexander Dawe’s English translation of “Endgame” brings a major international writer to an American audience for the first time.
Guns go off early in this seaside noir. Over lunch, the unnamed narrator — a semi-retired crime-writing Casanova — asks the mayor of the coastal town he’s visiting why there have been so many killings. “People here are a little behind the times,” the mayor explains. “Revenge is still a powerful emotion.”
The narrator casually guides readers through the town’s violence, worrying more about his liaisons with various mistresses than the blood and body parts on the streets. “Fear fed more fear,” he wryly observes. “It only took one of [the townspeople] to start a new fire and it fanned out in every direction, consuming anyone in its path. . . . These people eventually forgot the source of their fears, but continued to relish the emotion.”
Much of the destruction of “Endgame” is generated by the corrupt mayor and a local crime boss and their diminishing armies of men. The violence starts with a rumor of Roman gold buried beneath a church, but we venture far from where we started.
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As a minor celebrity and an outsider who’s on no one’s side, the narrator feels protected from and seduced by the anarchy, and there’s charm in the eagerness with which the townspeople befriend him. In one scene, he stops at a restaurant for a plate of grilled meatballs and a tomato salad. The waiter tells him he ought to have a cold beer, and the narrator obligingly agrees. In a flash, the waiter is back with two beers, sitting down at the table and complaining about his day.
By the time half the town has been lit on fire, even the mayor thinks the narrator should probably carry a gun. He gives him one, and the narrator tries to refuse it, pointing out that he doesn’t have a license. “Who’s going to ask you for a license around here?” the mayor laughs. “If anyone does, you can tell them I gave it to you.”
Despite the escalating intensity of crime across the book, these rivalries stay local. “No one in the outside world even knew what was going on in this little town,” the narrator says. “The country was busy worrying about other issues.” This is a pragmatic approach for Altan, who’s been persecuted for his journalism for decades. In September 2016, he was imprisoned by the Turkish state. According to his lawyer, he has had 25 court actions brought against him over the years, seven from the Turkish president.
Although it offers an implicit critique of Turkey’s corrupt justice system, “Endgame” is also comic and charmingly absurd, largely due to the reckless efforts of its characters to get even. As in many Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino movies, the levity isn’t in the bloodshed; it’s in the unexpected particulars that decorate each grisly situation. It’s in how the narrator will rush away from a murder scene to go chat online with his girlfriends.
“Forgive me, but these boys have no brains,” one woman tells him. “They’re half-arsed wasters who can’t even sit still, just have to fidget, get up and break something.”
But the narrator takes joy in the unsavory madness. “Life was insipid and boring for those who didn’t know the underground,” he says. “That secret world full of sin was where all the fun was.”
Nathan Scott McNamara writes for the Atlantic, the Village Voice and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
By Ahmet Altan
Translated from the Turkish by Alexander Dawe
Europa Editions. 395 pp. Paperback, $18