Book Review: The Few
“The Few” by Hakan Günday. 335 pp. Arcade Publishing $25.99 / £18.99
“You’re born and before 15 years are up you realise just what kind of a place the world is and you know that you’re just stuck somewhere between birth and death. It’s a feeling more than it’s actual knowledge. And then there’s the first revolt.”
The revolt described in these lines from Hakan Günday’s latest novel, “The Few”, is a common feature in literary and poetic works by writers from Charles Bukowski to Turkey’s Metin Kaçan, idiosyncratically grouped together in Turkey as “underground literature”. The term refers to a loosely defined genre of fiction, rather than literature that has been produced or distributed secretly or illegally, that generally features anti-heroes engaged in transgressive and explicitly depicted acts of sex, drugs and violence as they ponder existential questions in a stripped-down or colloquial narrative style.
These elements have been central to Günday’s work since his 2000 debut, “Kinyas ve Kayra”, and have carried his novels far from the underground to the mainstream, topping Turkey’s bestseller charts and winning awards in Turkey and France. Think Chuck Palahniuk or Irvine Welsh on the Bosporus.
Arcade Publishing has taken quite a risk with Günday’s “The Few”, given the book’s harsh subject matter and the writer’s relatively unknown status in the English-speaking world. “More”, his first novel translated into English, was released by the same publisher in 2016 to high praise from critics, but does not appear to have made any great mark commercially. And while the release of that book’s tale of human traffickers operating on the Aegean coincided with intense international interest in the movement across Turkey of refugees, there is no such topical hook to catch attention for “The Few”.
Unfortunately, this work also lacks the compelling narrative voice that gripped the reader through the scenes of extreme degradation that punctuated the previous novel. Without the immediacy of a well-drawn first-person narrator, the depiction of the string of abuses endured by the main characters in this work goes beyond gratuitous to become almost flat.
The first half of the novel follows a girl named Derdâ from the age of eleven, when her mother takes her out of a state boarding school in eastern Turkey. Derdâ is married off that year to a member of a religious order, who takes his child bride in a chador to London. There, she is kept as a prisoner in her husband’s flat, where she suffers violent physical and sexual abuse that stimulates a sadistic streak in her personality. This will come in handy as the marketable skill that she uses to engage with the alien outside world of London through her neighbour, an addict, masochist and pornographer, and eventually escape her husband.
While the book is populated by members of religious orders, or tarikats, drug-dealing Turkish gangsters and MI5 agents (sometimes all in the same character), very little is done to flesh out the characters and their motivations, or to really explore the culture of these religious orders or their significance in Turkish society. Nor is there any depth to how the novel deals with the immigrant communities in London – all depicted here are gangsters – or with the covered women in those communities.
Rather, the various characters feel more like types than real personalities, from Derdâ’s cruel mother, to her ogre of a husband, to Anne, a kind of fairy godmother who enters the novel on the 144th page as its first redeeming character besides the protagonist. This shallow characterisation, and the unlikely series of coincidences that Günday uses to drive the plot, give the novel in places an almost fairy-tale tone that sharply jars with its scenes of sadomasochism, paedophilia, drug addiction and gang rape.
This eases off somewhat through the novel’s second half, which switches the story back to Turkey and a young graveyard attendant, also named Derda. To say that this Derda’s life is less painful than his counterpart in London gives an idea of the extremes of suffering that the girl Derdâ endures: as his story commences, Derda is forced to chop up and dispose of his mother’s corpse, and with his father in prison he goes on to eke out an existence for himself alone at the graveyard.
The story traces his subsequent route to a life of crime and then prison, but with fewer pantomime villains and explicit scenes, Günday’s deft and witty sense of humour is allowed to move to the fore. While there were moments of joy amongst the bleakness in the girl Derdâ’s little acts of rebellion in London, back in Turkey the banter between the boy Derda and his friends, some of whom are written to be both sympathetic and well rounded, shows what a fun read Günday is capable of producing when he goes with a lighter approach.
The prose, too, becomes more ambitious in the second half of the book, with Günday’s experiments with form including a kind of symbolist dream section spurred by the main character’s – and author’s – fascination with the pioneering Turkish author Oğuz Atay.
By the novel’s uncharacteristically sentimental ending, we discover the twists of fate that link the two Derdas to each other and to Atay. As their names suggest, the two protagonists live parallel lives: both are orphans and are forced to fend for and educate themselves. Both are forced to work out for themselves how to use a language, and eventually find in literature a saving grace. These themes of interrupted youth and redemption through art made the story at times reminiscent of a true-life misery book, particularly in the excruciating realism of some of the novel’s explicit scenes.
Yet the lack of depth in the setting, and the novel’s uneven mix of fantasy and brutality, ultimately deprive the book of any clear message. It was difficult to discern the point of all the violence, which is handwaved on as the result of the book’s many fantastic coincidences, rather than occurring through pressure built up by the narrative.
Elsewhere, attempts at profundity can fall flat. Handled with subtlety, an exploration of the so-called East-West dichotomy through a sadomasochistic relationship might have been an inventive touch. Here, the idea is thrust at the reader in one particular clanger of a simile: “The slave was then renamed. The master was the one who named it. Like a child who names his pet, or like the Americans or Europeans who came and arbitrarily labelled a vast geography the ‘East’ – only because the land lay east of their borders – and who forced the people of that geography to accept the name.” Orientalists, take note.
There is enough in “The Few” to keep you reading to the end, and Alexander Dawes’ translation beautifully conveys Günday’s wit and fluent style. Unfortunately, despite the lengths taken to ensure its place in the “underground”, the novel ultimately and conspicuously lacks depth.