“Motherland Hotel” by Yusuf Atılgan

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There aren’t many advantages to waiting for almost fifty years for a novel to appear in translation, but at least one be pretty certain that the book has stood the test of time. Turkish writer Yusuf Atılgan’s Motherland Hotel dates from 1973. It was made into an award-winning film in 1986. The translator Fred Stark completed a translation in 1977, but it appears—a note in a review in Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper to the contrary notwithstanding—not to have ever been published until this edition. The thought of the manuscript sitting in a drawer for the better part forty years is good mental preparation for this short, claustrophobic book.

Atılgan has been compared to Camus. It is easy to see why.

Thirty-three year old Zebercet, runs a small down at heel hotel—once the family home—in a run-down quarter of Izmir near the station. He is a man of habit, with guest registrations, brushing of teeth, cups of tea and regular couplings with the mostly oblivious maid all duly noted. This routine is disturbed by a mysterious woman who came on “the delayed train from Ankara”. She stays one night and, after making a profound impression on Zebercet, says she will return in few days.

He leaves her room as it was:

 

the quilt thrown back, the rumpled sheet, the slippers, the chair, the reading lamp on the bedside table, two half-smoked cigarettes stubbed out in the copper ashtray, the teapot, strainer, tea-glass and spoon, the small dish with its five lumps of sugar (that night he had brought her six Could I have some tea she’d asked and he had brewed it in the three-serving pot then tray in hand had knocked Come in she sat there on the edge of the bed coat off black sweater necklace of large silver balls she’d looked up Sorry for the trouble and asked how to reach that village Then wake me at eight casually saying she carried no ID. The next morning he had noticed the scent on entering and quickly shut the door. She had left the light on.

 

Zebercet is obsessed. He purchases new clothes and shaves off his moustache so as to look his best on her return. He sleeps in the bed, and handles the sweater and towel she leaves behind. He fantasizes, and worse.

Motherland Hotel, Yusuf Atılgan, Fred Stark (trans) (City Lights, December 2016)
Motherland Hotel, Yusuf Atılgan, Fred Stark (trans) (City Lights, December 2016)

The woman, of course, does not return and Zebercet spirals into a sort of madness; it is however, a peculiarly calm, and almost rational, sort of madness. He loses interest in the hotel, starts eating out, has an unconsummated brush with homosexuality, relives episodes from his past and dysfunctional family, and re-engages, seemingly for the first in years, with waiters, policemen, chestnut vendors and others in his community all as the wheels gradually come off the bus.

 

In Turkey, Motherland Hotel is considered a classic. Atılgan has been compared to Camus. It is easy to see why: there is very much an “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas” quality to the book.

The author gave the book has evident and palpable rhythm. Stark notes in his introduction the “oriental concern, even obsession, with pattern” and calls the book “an exercise in strict purity of form—here that love of pattern finds expression”.

The author gave the book evident and palpable rhythm.

However, the repetition also features as an indication of Zebercet’s mental instability. He is, despite his ability to function apparently normally day-to-day, alienated or detached in some fundamental way from society and the life around him. He is, in his ordinariness and introversion, progressively chilling. Indeed, notes Stark, that “as a precise study in mental disturbance,” Motherland Hotel “was for a time required reading for psychiatry students in Ankara’s major hospital-university complex.”

Zebercet’s break with reality with approaches slowly, but arrives abruptly:

 

He felt embarrassed, ashamed actually, before all those people who thought of themselves as innocent, who failed to realize that only crime—some kind of crime—could keep you alive on earth.

 

Stark writes that “exactness is the byword for this novel.” It seems an appropriate way to describe the translation as well.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.