Set in the small fictional coastal town of Andalıç, with occasional excursions to Istanbul and elsewhere, the narrative falls into two parts: before and after the earthquake. Before the tremor, 38-year-old shopkeeper Cemal returns to the town after searching for his father “for the last time,” the man still missing after 20 years. Later that day, Cemal discovers that his father is dead and will be buried that afternoon. Still later that same day, Cemal discovers that his father had a second family, including a half-sister, Cemile. The pace does not slacken. Later that same week, Cemal becomes engaged to his school friend and neighbor, Sahila. Sahila left Andalıç to attend university and, after graduating, did very well professionally; her return home is never explained. For his part, Cemal never quite made it to university or traveled much outside of Andalıç.
It would take a very clever algorithm to describe the narrative arc, but dark hints arrive in the form of local gossip. This is a small town, full of narrow horizons, conservative attitudes, nosy neighbors, petty corruption, delusional local officials, confused teenagers, and bullying boyfriends. A further portent is the “new Care Home” brooding on top of the hill above, dominating the town for reasons that become clear later. Meanwhile, the lucky couple reminisces about school days, their plans, and the challenge involved in overcoming conservative local traditions. Then, with little warning, the local paper publishes an exposé on the mayor’s corruption, the publisher gets attacked, and people start getting hurt.
And then comes the earthquake:
Birds were the first creatures to run away from the surge presaging an eerie future, flocking, screaming, oblivious to the darkness. Next, dogs howled over a hushed fear that dilated cats’ pupils, raised their hackles, and arched their backs. Terror and anguish, which had seeped into the ground and pooled there for a century, rattled the ordinary, intent on extracting it. The faces of the dead sought resurrection as the glass over their framed portraits hanging on walls shivered with a thin fever. Windows, display cases and glasses in cupboards plunged into a low wail like a taut wire, in a frequency outside the range of human hearing. Water shivered too, in concentric rings in glasses on bedside tables, in pitchers on tables, in buckets in bathrooms, and sleeping on the shores of Andalıç. Early risers spotted a weirdly colored illumination piercing the darkness of the sky.
The rest of this chapter reads like a prose poem, and a master class in showing not telling, ending with the sentence: “Andalıç continued to drift in the middle of the stygian sea, a scoop of pitch-black ice cream in a cone ablaze with light.” After the earthquake, the town, always socially isolated, becomes a literal island, set adrift from mainland Turkey, heading who knows where.
What happens next is a sublime meditation on mass delusion. Life continues as if nothing has happened; the townsfolk assume help will come and that their elected officials are doing the best they can to resolve the situation. It is hilarious and depressing at the same time. The townsfolk cling to normalcy, desperately wanting to believe their elected officials, who tell them help will arrive “soon.” This “soon” drags on for a very long time. Water is rationed and food becomes scarce, but the population is forbidden to leave the island to seek help. Cemal’s shop is closed, and he falls ill, with Sahila defying local conventions for the unmarried to look after him.
While the townspeople struggle to survive, the elected officials do their best to help themselves. Teenage bullies are engaged by the mayor to keep order. A curfew is imposed. Petty nationalism reigns. The old and sick start dying. The men of the town are ordered to attend Friday prayers, where they receive instructions. In one of many darkly comic episodes, the men are ordered to gather surplus rock and soil and throw it into the sea, to stop the island-town from sinking. Even this blatant waste of time and energy fails to awaken the townsfolk to the fact that their freedom is being stolen from them. Cemal and Sahila, their wedding postponed indefinitely, chat about their younger lives, their reminiscences gradually shifting from vague memories of shared schooldays to the town’s current political situation. Parallels with Turkey’s recent history are not explicitly spelled out, but they don’t need to be.
Indeed, the narrative never turns into a rant. Biçen’s dazzling prose, captured beautifully in Feyza Howell’s translation, evokes everyday moments amid the encompassing crisis with unwonted delicacy and precision:
The morning stretches over the sea holding its breath. Stillness, akin to peace, in the absence of the storm, beckons everyone to the streets. Strolling in the slanted autumn sun, listening to one’s own footsteps rustling through the fallen leaves; listening to the tiny whispers of things that move of their own accord after the frenzied chorus of the wind. Inner peace rises by the buzzing of flies circling outside windows opened to let in the sun.
Yet, despite the high-flown poetry, it is not difficult to read between the lines: the “island all at sea” is an allegory geared for Turkish readers in the age of Erdoğan, but it works in other contexts, too. I would not wish to comment on the parallels between Snapping Point and the contemporary United States or Canada, but it doesn’t take a genius to be struck by how close the book’s conceit resembles the situation of the United Kingdom in early 2021. Instead of an actual earthquake, we have had a metaphorical one: the trauma of Brexit, followed by a series of COVID-19 lockdowns. There is the same petty nationalism, the same ineffectual curfews and social restrictions. My favorite parallel, however, concerns our version of “Friday prayers” televised each Friday afternoon, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Or worse, by Matt Hancock, the UK’s comedy health minister.) Flanked by the Union Jack, the men natter on about the supposedly improving situation. Meanwhile, the government’s “test and trace” strategy has failed so catastrophically that, in April, Britain has the highest number of COVID-related deaths in Europe.
The town of Andalıç — like Turkey itself — is not a blissful place, but it is home, and life goes on: lovers love, bullies are called out, lies are revealed, conflicts come to their conclusion. Eventually, the island’s inhabitants realize that the new regime is “hollow underneath,” and they rebel. The author doesn’t tell us what happens next; readers are not given the closure of a happy ending, which remains deliciously ambiguous. What is left is the fine writing and the happy feeling that, whatever political chicanery might be going on, it will totter and fall under the weight of its own hubris. In its own modest way, the ambiguous conclusion of Snapping Point is an affirmation of ideals, humane values, and rational thought.
For English readers, Aslı Biçen is a very happy discovery. Once started, Snapping Point is difficult to put down. It is easily one of the most complex, funny, captivating, beautifully written political thrillers I have ever read. I plan to read it again next week, after Friday Prayers.
Michael Tate is the founder of Jantar Publishing.