Burhan Sönmez: “In the mirror we have only the present moment” — a conversation with Caroline Stockford

I used to be a lawyer,’ Burhan Sönmez told me once, ‘but after spending time in police custody and being tortured, I eventually became a novelist.’ As a child, he listened to a great number of folk stories recounted by his mother in the remote Kurdish village where they lived, with no electricity.  Burhan’s novels reflect and draw upon this immense oral library. 

He moved to Istanbul as a student, but suffered serious injuries in detention at the hands of the Turkish police and was forced into exile in the UK for ten years, where he received treatment and assistance from the charity Freedom from Torture. Burhan’s first novel was published in 2009, entitled North (Kuzey) and his second book Sins and Innocents won Turkey’s Sedat Simavi Prize for Literature. His books are published in more than 30 countries.

His novel Istanbul, Istanbul came out in 2015 and won the EBRD prize in 2018. It is written, he says, not by looking to either east or west of the city or indeed the world, but from below, from a torture room and underground cells where to look up is to see through stone until you see the real Istanbul and then the sky.

Burhan was one of the founders of the left-wing Turkish newspaper BirGün, one of perhaps only three real opposition newspapers left in Turkey since 53 newspapers and 185 media organisations in total were shut down following the attempted-coup of 2016. Burhan is on the board of PEN International, and is an active member of both Turkish and Kurdish PEN. Burhan is a peacemaker, a wise and measured man, a great storyteller and a survivor.

He now lives in Istanbul and Cambridge. He has written for various newspapers like The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, and La Repubblica. He translated the poetry book of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake into Turkish and lectured in ‘Literature and the Novel’ at the university of METU.

In 2017 he won the Vaclav Havel award, ‘Disturbing the Peace’. Labyrinth is his fourth novel and was published in 2018. This interview took place in Pune, India at the PEN world congress.

Your new book Labyrinth is out. Could you tell us a little about it?

Yes,  the name of the book is Labyrinth but the word labyrinth doesn’t appear once in the text. Our hero is a young musician who is living in today’s Istanbul. He’s a Turkish blues singer. He tries to commit suicide by jumping from the Bosphorous bridge and then he opens his eyes in hospital. This is how the book begins. When he wakes up in hospital he has an issue with things. His rib is broken and he has lost his memory.  He can’t remember who he is. Of course, because he had ID on him, the hospital was able to call his friends to collect him. Then he goes home and struggles with the classic question, ‘who am I?’ and ‘why did I want to kill myself.’ The general opinion around him is ‘you’re a very talented person, a great musician, a very happy guy’, what’s more his family is wealthy and there’s nothing in life he doesn’t have. On top of this he’s also really handsome. So the question is, why would such a person wish to end their life? This is where the story begins. We learn all this in the first couple of pages. There are within this framework several important questions I wanted to explore. One is: how much does memory shape our personality in today’s world?  Can a modern person live without a memory? Or, more to the point: is the modern person being fated to live without a memory? There is only today. Yesterday is nothing and you can’t do anything about tomorrow as you cannot own the initiative to change it.  Therefore, the person has to live just for today. 

How does the memory and the concept of time of such a person work? This was the first question.  

And the second?

The second was in relation to the collective memory.  How can the collective memory be played with and how is it shaped? For example, if we take Turkey today, the political powers have made the communal consciousness the stage for a war. One side says ‘our real history goes back over a hundred years and is related to the Ottomans’, others say ‘no, forget what happened before the last one hundred years, the last century alone is our modern history. ‘ What doors are opened from the memories of modern people in society and where do they open onto? For example if a person considers themselves as the starting point of an action then his or her personality is shaped according to that and the memory then is something that’s influend by the political, the media and the markets. I don’t debate these matters in the book; the book is about the life of a musician. But these questions were in my mind as I was writing it. Just how much I made obvious these questions as the protagonist searches for his memory, is up to the reader to decide.

When you look into a mirror, there is no time. There is no past in the mirror and there can be no future. In the mirror we have only the present moment

So the labyrinth is in our minds and our own memories? Is that so?

Perhaps the labyrinth is everything in which we live. Because when we move around in the labyrinth we cannot remember everything, not every turn we took to get here. The places we passed are in our memory but sometimes we can’t place them exactly in the correct time in which they took place. The memory of our protagonist also goes and comes a little, like this. His name’s Boratin and he keeps coming back to the conclusion of, ‘why does it matter that I don’t have a past? I am here now. My friends keep telling me that I was a very skilled musician, but if they told me that I was a master fisherman, I’d believe that just the same. What does it matter? Why would I disappear if my memory goes away? And all his friends, in response to this probelm are reminding him of his past, and almost trying to create a past for him. One of his friends tells him ‘be careful. Time and the past are two separate things. While everyone is trying to give you a past that you can remember, they are actually giving you a history. The difference is that while the past is alive, history is dead.’ 

And how does the concept of memory relate to Istanbul? Do cities forget? Do they remember?

Upon this idea we have transposed the map of Istanbul and Istanbul is going through the same problem. As it says on the back of the book, the protagonist is struggling to find himself in a city that is doing the same. The memory of Istanbul changes every day by way of various interventions, IMHALAR and new constructions. How fast does the memory of the city change and who is it that changes it? You can go back to a neighbourhood after three years and you can be faced with streets and buildings that you’ve never seen in your life, or you find that there’s nothing of what you remember left. These kind of things are discussed in the text, but the main topics are the night life of Isanbul, the blues singer, the anarchist group of the young people there, their discussions and conversations. The question is how does a modern individual in a modern society in a city such as Istanbul, or a similar place, survive and how can that individual come to terms with their problems?


Was the protagonist more happy before he lost his memory, or is he happier not remembering anything?

This is the question. According to all his friends, before he lost his memory he was a very happy person. They say he was a good person, that he helped everyone and was a kind of ‘ideal’ person. Why would an ideal person like this want to kill themselves? This the is the question. Because, one night, he’s on his way back from a concert in a taxi and the taxi is going over the Bosphorous bridge. He’s alseep in the taxi, it’s night. Then the traffic slows down due to an accident. He opens one eye and sees that the traffic’s stopped, he immediately opens the door and jumps off the bridge. The taxi driver recounts ‘he woke up and he went and jumped.’ I explained this to a writer at a literature festival to whom I was talking and he said ‘the story resembles Turkey. Every twenty or thirty years you try to kill yourself, you don’t succeed, you destroy your memory, and then you try to reinvent yourself again. And I think he was right in that. So then the question gets to that point: Why is this society and these people, in fact all of us in modern life, why are we trying to put an end to ourselves? Sometimes we see this in a family situation. We have a very happy family where the father has a good family life, and has his children, his job, but he goes off and does something terrible, which destabilises everything. Why does this happen?

And memory is made up of moments. Do you think that we used to be more in the moment in earlier tribal society before the establishment of the concept of nations? And do you think that we now try to assert the symbols of our jobs, what we wear, how we present ourselves in order to put our stamp on the changing world and try to cling to it instead of enjoying all the moments? Would everything just be easier if we stop hiding behind these symbols and just were ourselves in the present moment?

Yes, that’s important. When I was writing this book I was thinking about a quote by Borges, which I put at the beginning, in fact I wrote the book thinking about and daydreaming about Borges. He’s very popular in Turkey; everyone in my generation loved him. In my mind for years I had Borges’s labyrinth and also the symbol of the mirror. Our protagonist is constanctly confronted by mirrors. He’s always staring into a mirror, trying to talk to his reflection. The crucial point here is that our protagonist is very much like a mirror himself. When you look into a mirror, there is no time. There is no past in the mirror and there can be no future. In the mirror we have only the present moment and we’re in exactly the same situation, then, as our protagonist. So, as he looks at the mirror, he tries to get inside the mirror. He is sure that the mirror can tell him something about himself and he’s constantly asking. The metaphor of the mirror comes and goes all the time. Blues, a labyrinth, mirrors… instead of just talking about brains and memory all the time.

My last question is: is it better to remember or to forget? We go on holding memorials for people and events, would it be better to let these things go? To remember or not to remember? Because, if there is no memory then there are no stories. Isn’t that so?

This is the principle issue of the modern person. This questions is related to our character. For example, Boratin is left without an answer to this question and because he can’t answer it, he suffers a breakdown. Should I find my past, or do I not need it? They say I was happy, then surely I can be happy again. Throughout the book this question comes and goes in his mind. But I, of course, as the writer of the book am not the same person as my character, and I would, quite definitely want to have my past and to refind my past if I had lost it, but is this the answer for everyone, no, I don’t think so. Or does the question change according to the experience? Perhaps, after a very painful love affair, I would chose to forget my past. But now, in the environment I am living in, I would most certainly wish to have my past with all its effects around me and to carry it with me all the time.  

Caroline Stockford is a writer, poet and literary translator from Turkish to English and Welsh. She is the Turkey Adviser for Norwegian PEN, for whom she observes the trials of journalists and advocates for freedom of expression in Turkey. She is a board member of Wales PEN Cymru with whom she has run a project translating the ancient Mabinogi folk tales from Welsh to Kurmanji Kurdish. She is also Chair of the Search Committee of PEN International.