Asli Erdogan [Trans. Amy Spangler
Soft Skull Pres
Available Oct. 28
Contemporary politics may have transformed popular conceptions of the Arabian tale into a fundamentalist nightmare: we’re less likely to find virgin-filled harems awaiting us on the other side of a beaded awning than a suicide bomber on the other side of life. Though “luscious” prose and noir epistemology might appear unlikely bedfellows, Erdogan, a Turkish physicist-turned-writer, has attempted to compose such a novel. In order to do it she has skipped across an ocean to Rio de Janeiro. Her protagonist, Özgür (herself an older university scholar-turned-novelist), suffers through poverty, stifling heat, cultural alienation and the humanistic horrors of a city consumed by Carnival’s dark wheel. Elephantiasis-stricken vagrants lie in pools of urine, street urchins are “disposed of” for a few hundred dollars, and the difference between police and gangsters is merely that the gangsters conceal their weapons.
Innate failings of compassion — in which we, as Erdogan writes, “naturally have more pity for a sick dog than a sick man” — don’t help lighten the mood here. Erdogan’s Rio is not a city for the timid. And Özgür, neither outright prude nor shameless Parnassian, is clearly at sea as to how to live and work in such environs. The fact that she’s writing a novel abets her plunge into further social and emotional isolation. As the boundaries between reality and Özgür’s story-within-a-story blur, her descent toward death is not tragic or terrifying, but inevitable.
While this novel is oftentimes needlessly preoccupied with recycling images of poverty and brutality, the intrigue of The City in Crimson Cloak lies less in what it exploits than what it denies; namely, any intimate familiarity with its setting. Twice removed from her environment — first by foreignness, second by the isolation brought on by the act of writing — Özgür is only able to unpack the surface characteristics of Rio. For author Erdogan, this approach is a risky one, but it’s also honest, as anyone who’s taught English in unfamiliar environs will attest. And therein lies the greatest surprise the novel has to offer: the reader is able to empathize with Özgür despite an emotional and narrative distance from her. If this is a form of highbrow noir from another shore, it looks very, very good.