Review: Black Sky, Black Sea


October 17, 2012 by markstani

Istanbul, 1977: a May Day parade is brutally suppressed in Taksim Square. Fingers are pointed at the conservative government, at fascists, at competing left-wing factions. The scent of revolution is mixed with gunsmoke. It is a city braced for violent change.
Oak, eighteen, a boarding school student, has gone along for the ride. Bewildered when the parade turns nasty, he is plucked from danger by a girl two years older than himself, with a pistol and a revolver and ‘dark and angry’ eyes. Her name is Zuhal. As Turkey escalates towards a military coup, her fleeting presence in his life will obsess Oak, shaping his ideas and values, challenging his political beliefs, and luring him deeper into an invariably violent world.
Black Sky, Black Sea (pub. MacLehose Press) is Izzet Celasin’s first novel. One would assume it lends heavily from personal experience: a left-wing activist, Celasin was imprisoned after the 1980 coup, and moved to Norway in 1988 as a political refugee (incredibly, he first wrote this novel in Norwegian, from which is was subsequently, faultlessly translated by Charlotte Barslund).
If you’re wondering at this point whether a novel about internal conflict in seventies Turkey can really cut a swathe through your reading pile, let me assure you: this is a book that mocks preconceptions, unfurling into a zappy, racy and above all extremely human story of urban guerrillas, and yet, for all its deceptive simplicity, one which begs fundamental questions about the very nature of revolution itself: the contradiction between genuine idealism and a desire simply to belong; the hypocrisy in using a gun to promote peace and harmony.

Zuhal’s convictions gradually lure Oak from his quiet home life, where he lives with his mother and assumes he will one day marry Ayfer, a sweet, quiet girl from an opposite tenement block. Zuhal remains tantalisingly out of reach, and while she kindles a political flame in Oak, it is one increasingly at odds with her own, more aggressive vision of the path to a socialist Utopia.
‘I was just one person on the planet who wanted to live in eternal peace, surrounded by poetry, music and love,’ declares Oak, and yet at the same time: ‘I fantasised about.. being an urban guerrilla in the back seat of a car on a murky day, pistol by my side, waiting impatiently to strike at a target. Or in the mountains, resting around a campfire with a Kalashnikov in my lap. I could see how the romanticism of this would appeal to most of my peers because such fantasies always ended before any blood was spilt.’

Therein lies the heart of a contradiction which will pull Oak in Zuhal’s wake, immersing him further in the deadly world of fascist thugs and military prisons as the regime imposes curfews and flexes its muscles for the coup that is to follow. At the same time, Oak’s story becomes increasingly personal as, if you like, his own internal revolution takes place: torn between regular girls and the absent guerrilla just as much as he struggles with two distinct political dogmas; flooded with feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and most of all rage at a society that has nourished such turmoil.
‘Black Sky, Black Sea’ is a superb, gripping book. In some respects, it is only after you shut it that its real cleverness becomes apparent, as those questions about the dichotomies in political activism refuse to dissipate: lingering in corners of your mind like wisps of gunsmoke over a battered city square.


6 thoughts on “Review: Black Sky, Black Sea

  1. Tom Cunliffe says:

    Sounds an interesting book and for a first novel is fairly ambitious. However, it seems to have worked out well – and your review sums it up perfectly.

  2. Mark says:

    Thanks Tom. Yes, he pulled it off. Definitely a writer to watch.

  3. Tom Cunliffe says:

    Great review – I don't know many (any?) Turkish authors – apart from one I forget (Orpan . . .?). The publishers took a chance on this one – a first novel from a Turkish author but it sounds like it paid off

  4. stujallen says:

    Just got my copy mark ,Looks different ,all the best stu

  5. Mark says:

    I'll be fascinated to hear your thoughts, Stu. I loved it.

  6. […] at the heart of the argument is clearly ripe for novel writing: see Izzet Celasin’s brilliant Black Sky, Black Sea, also published this year. Pamuk’s novel centres around a practically bed-ridden […]

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