My thanks to my sister for recommending Kemal when I said that I was trying to expand my reading in translation. She told me that I would love ‘To Crush the Serpent.’ She was right.
It’s a very short book and tells a simple story. The young Hassan is torn; his mother’s former lover shot his father and the village has passed judgement on her. Her beauty (and her family’s power) appears to be enough to save her from the wrath of her brothers in law. This means that the death sentence must be carried out by her son.
The whole scenario reads like a nightmare. There is no way in which the beautiful Emse is guilty of any crime at all. The story is not interested in outsider’s views of wrong and right however, it concentrates on weaving a claustrophobic web of psychological torment around its characters. Whether or not you believe that Hassan’s father is now a ghost wandering the land until his son avenges his death, this haunting tale is as terror-filled as any horror story I’m likely to read this year.
Usually when reading, I keep track of good quotations or paragraphs that I might want to quote. My system failed with ‘To Crush the Serpent,’ because the whole book is written with such simplicity and relentless tension its nearly impossible to separate out any specific paragraphs. If you like literature which evokes new landscapes while plumbing the depths of human behaviour, I highly recommend this novel. In tone, it reminded me most of Ismail Kadare’s more mythical works (such as ‘the Three Arched Bridge’ or ‘Broken April’). The fable-like narrative is similarly underlined with what feels like symbolic, allegorical meaning. At the back of my mind, I suspected there was something about Turkish nationalism being evoked through the beautifully tragic, exploited and abused figure of Esme. The tension between the lawcourts and the trial by gossip and ghost also seemed to be hinting at wider themes, and I wondered if it could be making a point about the East-West tension explored far more explicitly in Orhan Pamuk’s work, Kemal’s more internationally renown compatriot. This is a book that I will be able to return to time and time again. Like the ghosts it evokes, it will haunt any receptive reader, calling them back to a time they can barely remember and a landscape they may never have known. It’s the kind of novel which makes loving literature in translation easy and only inspires me to seek out as much of it as I can. A highly recommended read.