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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Hotel Bosphorus by Esmahan Aykol

Bitter Lemon Press, 224 pages, $14.95 (c2001, English ed. c2011), translated by Ruth Whitehouse

Esmahan Aykol is an İstanbullu, someone from Istanbul, Turkey, but she has connections to Germany as well. It is understandable, then, that her heroine, Kati Hirschel, is an Istanbul-born German who returned to Istanbul when she was an adult. “Hotel Bosphorus” was written in Turkish but exhales in Turkish, German, and English. As is so true of most of us Americans, we are out of step with a good deal of the European and Asian worlds. Besides their native language, they know English and probably other languages as well, and we know English. We are the world’s perpetual tourists, especially in regard to books written in other languages.

Aykol stops to explain certain differences in how things are set up in Istanbul and how difficult it is to render certain expressions into Turkish. I think her foreign reference point is the German reader, but it applies to us English readers as well. Kati is soliciting help from a French lawyer in German:

“‘If there’s no objection to you giving me the information I want, I’d rather not say,’ I said. I have to admit that, even after so many years [in Turkey], I would have found it difficult to construct that sentence in Turkish.”

There are many languages floating around in this book and many characters from countries other than Turkey, and they all lend an international sheen to Aykol’s work. For example, Kati says to her Turkish friend Lale:

“‘If you spoke German as well as my Turkish … Well, not German, because that’s a difficult language. But if you learn to speak any language as well as I speak Turkish, I’ll kiss your forehead in admiration.’”

It is Aykol’s stew of foreign sensibilities, the depiction of walls breaking down between countries, and her description, however brief, of the economic frustrations and breakdowns in Turkey at that time that gives this book an interesting underlying layer.

Kati is the owner of a crime-centric bookstore — although goodness knows how she manages to keep her store afloat since she’s seldom there to pay bills and do orders. Perhaps that mundane aspect of bookstore arcana is not worth mentioning. Her complicated world is complicated further when an acquaintance from Germany comes to town.

That acquaintance is Petra, a popular German actress, who is in town with a German crew to film an adaptation of a famous Italian book. Production hasn’t even started when their two-bit film director is murdered. Since Kati is so familiar with crime (where’s that irony emoticon when you need it), she decides to investigate the murder. Her desire to exonerate her friend is a weak motivation.

In the process, Kati, a woman in her forties who is constantly worried about her appearance, meets several eligible men, not all of whom are on the right side of the law. There are a few steamy sequences worthy of a comical version of “Shades of Grey-Lite.”

I enjoyed the book for its glimpse of life in Istanbul, but I had trouble with the sometimes abrupt transitions and undulating tone — was it about political criticism, elitism, sex-in-the-city girl-gone-wild, rom-com, the sensitive handling of relationships? Perhaps it was more about my Western expectations and sensibilities. The murder mystery itself played second fiddle to life in Istanbul and Kati’s love life.

My familiarity with authors who set their series in Turkey is limited. I have read one Mehmet Murat Somer and there is a tonal similarity with Aykol. I’ve also read Orhan Pamuk, and Pamuk (Western-influenced, I’d say) and Aykol live in two different worlds. I’ve read several of Barbara Nadel’s books in the Çetin İkmen series, but she’s British and writes in English. I don’t know enough to say whether Aykol's style is “Turkish,” but it is an interesting glimpse into a different world, even if it is an indifferent look at murder.

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