‘5th Day Told by the Student Demirtay: The Night Lights’ by Burhan Sönmez, translated from Turkish by Ümit Hussein

“The odd thing about Istanbul was the way she preferred questions to answers. She could turn happiness into nightmare, or the other way round, make a joyous morning dawn after a night devoid of all hope. She gained strength from uncertainty. They called this the city’s destiny.”

The novel Istanbul Istanbul centres on four inmates who are locked up, after a military coup, in a dark prison cell below the vibrant streets of Istanbul. When not being tortured and interrogated by guards, they share stories to pass the time. Despite the grimness of its plot, this novel is compassionate and heart-warming, underscoring the power of storytelling; how it can connect people, heal their wounds and free their minds. Every chapter is narrated by an inmate. In this chapter, Student Demirtay travels back to the days leading up to his arrest. I particularly loved his descriptions of Istanbul and the freedom of his narrative. Towards the end, when he absconds from the safehouse he’s been hiding in, under the supervision of a little girl and her blind grandmother, the boundaries between real and fantasy begin to blur. As he leaves their shanty house and enters a vegetable garden, he hears someone calling his name. When he realises it’s one of the inmates in his cell, trying to awaken him, the reader is as surprised as he is, to be roused from this hypnotic journey of a story within a story.

Published in Istanbul Istanbul: A Novel, Telegram, 2016