Written by Murat Gülsoy

With books translated into numerous languages as English, Arabic, German and Chinese, author Murat Gülsoy illustrated Istanbul of 1908s, echoed in his latest novel ‘In the City of Shadows and Dreams’ with Sedat Simavi Literary Prize.

There were numerous foreign travelers who visited and narrated Istanbul in the 19th century. Some were orientalist travelers as some visited Turkey with different purposes such as ambassadors and teachers who later wrote their memoirs. Before I wrote my novel ‘In the City of Shadows and Dreams’, I tried to access and read everything written by those people. Some themes stand out in these memoirs. One is graveyards. Once, people would have picnics in Istanbul graveyards. In fact, people would leave meatballs, stuffing they brought along in little holes carved on some tombstones. Istanbul’s dogs stand out as a distinct theme in memoirs of foreign travelers. I also included these themes in my book. In a sense, I desired my story to be a guide for the period it takes place in. This is why I had to take my characters on a tour to Istanbul of 1908. I started off with popular destinations of the period. I narrated the events which took place in a lodge in Üsküdar. Not to distort the reality, I benefited from memoirs of foreign travelers. For instance, I made sure to use if the sentence “they lined up their shoes by the wall” was written or details such as where pelt is laid, what decorates the walls, or where sheik sits. I depicted dhikr or trance moments in the lodge, accompanied by the bewilderment a Westerner may experience.

Throughout novel’s research process, I examined a large number of old Istanbul photographs. I viewed all the postcards I could find, watched films. Visual material did not necessarily date back to 1908s. I took these into consideration even if they were from 1940s, 1950s, even from Istanbul of 1960s and 1970s. I watched old documentaries when I chanced upon one. I eventually realized that changes Istanbul went through gained remarkable speed after a period. Especially after 1980s. Today’s Istanbul is another city! Now there are new districts which have recently emerged. However the traces of old districts do not disappear easily. Especially on the Anatolian side of the city. With this perspective, I chose Kandilli as the background of the novel. In the years I worked there, I felt like time stopped in Kandilli. As skyscrapers were built one after the other on the other side, everything persistently remained the same in Kandilli. Fountain was the same, pier was the same, buildings the same. So was the atmosphere of the district… Just like the slowness and rhythm of people… There are still times not even a single car passes from the streets of Kandilli. Those fishing on the pier and a continuous state of calm. Of course, this is about old Istanbul infiltrating Kandilli and transforming into an utterly different thing.

In this sense, the district I resided in Herhâlpermeated into my novel. On one side Rumelihisarı, Bebek and Aşiyan I lived on European side. On the other side, Kandilli my workplace was located in was added to this list. I can say that the characters in my novel had to move to other districts a little due to necessity. Because it was sensible for a foreigner who moved to Istanbul in early 1900s to reside in Galata area. Or for a foreigner lady to prefer the multicultural atmosphere in Kuzguncuk and to live there. Istanbul of course offers a rich texture to authors for their novels as well as vast opportunities… Hardships emerge too. Because it is a city which has been a subject to numerous texts. Everyone talks about Istanbul one way or the other, and there is a different Istanbul depicted through each’s own point of view. Somewhere in the book, one of my characters likens Kuzguncuk to rural Paris. This is a realistic comparison because district truly resembled rural Paris in that period. I got acquainted with Kuzguncuk in mid-1980s, when I visited to see Poet Can Yücel. I later visited the district numerous times for various reasons. This is why Kuzguncuk has a special place for me.

When I wrote about Istanbul in my novel, I was constantly occupied with water. The water of Bosphorus, water wells in gardens of houses, creeks… Old time travelers invariably praised the city waters in depicting Istanbul. For instance, they refer to Göksu creek as the freshwater of Asia Minor. This water was probably so nice that they found it worth mentioning then. And they also want to point out the following: it is freshwater. However the water flowing across the city is salty. Numerous foreigners refer to Bosphorus as a “river” when they visit Istanbul, which bothers us. We correct them saying it is the sea. But for them it is a river for all large cities as Berlin, London, Paris are established on rivers. Istanbul appears that way too however it is a city of salt water. With its fish, its fishing, everything… This is why I felt both surprised and pleased when latest Istanbul Biennial’s title was selected as “Saltwater”. Anyway, in the novel I set off from a simple well and connect the subject to Istanbul myths, devil currents and Khazar Sea.

And there is the Basilica Cistern in the book which is an extraordinary place. You go underground and tour with a little boat there. Its boundaries are dubious. Back in 1908, no one had an idea on the area cistern extends over. An upside-down Medusa head is situated in a far corner of the cistern. I mentioned it in my novel with pleasure. But later, when novel was about to be published, I came across a book on Basilica Cistern. I opened the book to find information of Medusa head. To my surprise, this head was discovered in 1970s. This is why I had to remove the parts on Medusa head because my novel took place in Istanbul of 1908-1909. Here is an interesting detail. This means nobody went over to that part of the cistern until 1970s. Can you imagine how untouched Istanbul was back then? And Istanbul’s monumental rocks are worth mentioning. The Serpent Column on Hippodrome of Constantinople in Sultanahmet, is a curious example. There used to be three serpent heads on this column. Only one stands to this day. The find is exhibited in Istanbul Archeology Museum. Short myths of Istanbul are admirably rich with monumental structures and colorful characters. In my novel titled ‘In the City of Shadows and Dreams’ the following words by one of the characters, Charles reveal the foreigners’ feelings on Istanbul a century ago: “Believe me my friends, this city is the most extraordinary place on the world right now. You may experience all phases humanity went through in this city, in a single day. For instance today, we witnessed a rite performed even hundreds of years ago, in the evening we might catch one of the hit opera performances in Tepebaşı.” Isn’t it accurate?

*Edited from author’s interview held in Kuzguncuk Nail Bookstore.

About the author

Murat Gülsoy

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