The Language of the Misfit: On Oğuz Atay’s “The Disconnected”

January 23, 2022   •   By Helen Mackreath

AFTER LEARNING OF the suicide of Selim, an old university friend with whom he’s lost contact, Turgut Özben, a middle-class, middle-aged civil engineer from Istanbul, traces the last decades of his life. Selim had an assortment of acquaintances who recount to Turgut insights into his habits and tastes, his composition of strange and playful songs, his obstinate and childish relationship to women, his boredom and fear of loneliness, his dislike of horses, lightning, false teeth, and Balzac. Selim referred to himself several times as one of The Disconnected, a possible reference to the definition in the “The Encyclopedia of Strange Creatures”: “A clumsy and easily frightened animal […] with large eyes but weak sight. […] The males moan pitifully when left alone.” Turgut learns that Selim had planned to compile an Encyclopaedia of the Turkish “Disconnected” — stories of ordinary people who fail, who do not fit in, or “those who cannot hold on” (the literal translation of the Turkish title, Tutunamayanlar).

Tutunamayanlar, written by Oğuz Atay, was first published in Turkey in 1972 and has been reprinted more than 70 times. The novel takes the form of a series of notes detailing the encounters Turgut arranges with Selim’s acquaintances, the ranks of The Disconnected who are (ironically) connected by their relationship with Selim. The novel intersperses accounts of their exchanges with various writings by Selim — parody sketches, tragicomic observations, dark humor, and the transcripts of absurdist appeals of plaintiffs giving testimonies about various characters and deeds to imaginary high courts. The book takes the form of a cluttered manuscript that has been passed between strangers over years and is preceded by a “Publisher’s Note” that distances itself from the “authenticity” of the work. What follows is an ambiguous tangle of tongue-in-cheek games and urgent inquiries, strung together with dialogues (imagined and real), letters, poems, encyclopedia articles, pseudo-academic analyses, and surreal events, in which the reader is either the subject of or a participant in the various mockeries being made. As much as it is a documentation of Turgut’s quest to trace the residues of Selim’s last relationships, it is also a testament to the constant reproduction of the world — a lament about shifting and untouchable versions of the past, and ourselves within it, which “has a life like that of a human being, separate from the story it tells.”

The work is considered a cult novel in Turkey, rooted in the experiences of educated urban youth of the 1950s and ’60s. Turgut is representative of the vacuous middle class, experiencing feelings of “suffocation under the petit bourgeois comforts from which he benefited” and describing himself in a mock protocol to a schoolboy Selim as “just like a virgin with a nasty soul. Though I saw everything I did not allow it to contaminate me.” He is restless and uneasy, and the news of the death of his friend precipitates an existential crisis that spirals into an all-consuming obsession. Shortly after he receives the news, he dreams of Selim’s burial in a daisy-strewn field by a group of recalcitrant coffin bearers, before having the nasty realization that it’s his own body in the coffin. The two friends have a matter-of-fact conversation next to the gravesite, discussing the final sentence that has just been uttered over the dead body by a strange group of loud men: “The verdict is gentler if we give them a tip and behave agreeably, yet it remains a verdict which we know to be of no relevance to us whatever in its form or content.”

Turgut’s dialogues with Selim’s (multiple) pasts are also a quest to break from the imprisonment of his “bland and colourless existence.” But the stickiness of human entanglement is as compartmentalized as that of capitalist modernity. The wounds of his grief ache with his own emptiness, and the more he clutches at the strands of Selim’s life, the more he becomes unmoored from his unstable anchors. The tension between the contradictory poles he is trying to reconcile — between imagination and becoming, memory and future, the multiple selves and others within himself — grows into an unbridgeable chasm into which he ultimately falls. In his quest, every sentiment is coupled with its opposite, every move is reversed, every endeavor fails. The fates of Selim and Turgut gradually collide, like two parallel train tracks converging into one, with Turgut’s final request being for “us [to] be disconnected together.”

¤ 

The Disconnected is rooted in a particular time and place, a Turkey “perched on a vast peasant hinterland, with an imperfect democracy, aware of the frequently clumsy reforms of the Atatürk revolution” — in the words of Maurice Whitby in the introduction to the 2017 English-language edition, which he edited. Industrialization and urbanization gained momentum during the 1960s and ’70s, leading to the emergence of an urban working class. University students, intellectuals, and workers were increasingly mobilized by a galvanized leftist movement. Their first wave of mobilizations peaked at the end of the 1960s. In 1971, the same year the first volume of The Disconnected was published, the Turkish military staged a coup and declared martial law, arresting thousands of left-wing activists and restricting most civil liberties.

The unifying modernization project, begun under Atatürk and the Kemalists at the birth of the Republic in 1923, which was grounded in the bourgeois idea of modernity and characterized by a doctrine of progress, assumed that the country could become both nationalized and Western at the same time. But this nation-building project required a homogeneous totality, the taming or violent expulsion of the radically “other.” By the 1960s, acts of violent expulsion had been practiced — genocide against the Armenians and pogroms against the Greek and Jewish populations. Rapid urbanization and the migration flow from rural areas to the industrialized cities, with the migrants building and settling in gecekondu (“built overnight”) properties, disrupted existing social structures and mingled new populations together. Atay’s work is an evisceration of this bourgeois modernist project in which, in the words of literary critic Meltem Gürle, the author, “in his contempt for authority of all kinds, […] forms an attachment to the ‘language of the misfit,’ the voice that sets itself in opposition to the dominant voice of the culture.”

But his positioning in relation to these “others” — other peoples, other histories, other languages, other cultures — is in flux, with a plurality of voices subverting and collapsing all binary oppositions. Selim and Turgut exchange an impassioned dialogue that skitters across both European and Russian literatures and Ottoman cultural memory. According to literary critic Armağan Ekici, Atay

keeps alluding to Shakespeare and the Bible, to Kafka, to Dostoyevsky, to Goncharov; he uses techniques he learned from Joyce and Nabokov, he keeps joking about reading German philosophy, badly translated French novels, etc. All these are handled from the perspective of his specific generation and the social and cultural issues of Turkey.

Ekici notes the shift in the public reception of Atay’s work in Turkey after an initially tepid response to the publication of the first edition. Only a decade later, in 1984, when the book was republished, did it claim its place as one of the most important novels of Turkish literature. “In the following decades,” Ekici writes,

Atay became one of the favourite writers of a younger public. His humour, his irony, his mockery of himself and his environment, his parodies of the many competing, maximalist discourses that people hear all the time around them, his gift of the musicality of language, and his vivid description of the themes of personal depression and anxiety created a strong attraction for a broad reading public.

Across more than 700 pages, we are confronted with the various narratives of Selim and Turgut’s multiple (failed) attempts to “hold on” — thresholds circumscribed by the limits of their relationships with others. These accounts do not cohere or align, their slippery impermanence demonstrating that knowledge of the world cannot be contained within the limits of any one individual. The first acquaintance Turgut visits is Selim’s former colleague in Ankara, Süleyman Kargı, a technician who works in a building clotted with plaster in “heavy smallpoxed clumps.” Kargı tries to make sense of their friend’s suicide, suggesting that “he must have exhausted all ways of making himself understood.”

Let me tell you how they treat people like Selim. They don’t put him down to start with; first, they allow him to think as he wants to; they allow him to feel, to live in the world and interpret it as he wishes to; they even clap and praise him so that he is utterly intoxicated and cannot turn back. And then you know the rest.

Kargı shares a 600-line autobiographical poem that Selim had composed, a ballad of The Disconnected, entitled “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow,” in which he introduces himself as Selim Işık, a Turk, solitary:

Sensitive, ruthless; angry yet dejected;
Not living. Was this true? Just thought to be.

The poem is superficially an account of Selim’s wretched childhood, but it slips into an enigmatic inquiry that takes in a series of fake biographies, encyclopedia entries, and supposedly academic articles on a range of topics: military conquest, pulp fiction, the plight of barbers, the mosques of Ankara, and shrines in the Istanbul cemeteries. An accompanying exhaustive commentary provided by Kargı introduces The Disconnected, the oppressed whose time must come, and to whom Selim is a self-anointed leader.

Let us imagine that we could bring out into the sunlight (a sun far different from that which we know now) some truths and events that have long been buried, and see in this new light the indifference with which some groups of people, large or small, have always been treated. Let us rescue from the dusty shelves of history experiences of which the injustice has been obscured, lives pushed deep into the archives by misclassification, misinterpretation.

Above all, Atay exposes the experience of alienation — what it feels like to be a fugitive of your own life under conditions of capitalist modernity. Turgut’s life is one of banal acceptance and automation, in which the houses he can see from his window are “[h]ard masses, incapable of softening their lines; but real volumes which have the power to make a man just woken from sleep forgive their ugliness by virtue of their bare existence.” We witness him dealing with estrangement, detachment from his family and material goods. As he moves further from the edges of reality (a situation he recounts retrospectively at the beginning of the manuscript as both “crystal clear and indistinct”), he becomes more manically attached to his own consciousness — personified as Olric, with whom he enters into heated, sometimes plaintive, dialogue. In his imagined conversations with Olric and Selim, he mercilessly mocks the patronizing cruelties of existence, satirizing the societal expectations that value strong male friendship and the traditional roles of the sexes.

Turgut visits the government planning department for a business meeting (“they call it a business circle; that is because you have to go round and round in it; a very gentle circling movement which gradually wears you out”). The following 24 pages describe his descent into the twisted bowels of a bureaucratic office, full of nervous creatures and mysterious rules. Hordes of porters, clerks, secretaries, officials, assistant directors chant like the chorus of a Greek play.

All eyes would be fixed on the flight of stairs, yearning for the appearance of the expected official. First would come the wrong officials; all heads swayed from side to side with disappointment; all eyes looked at each other with sympathy, burning with the desire to see a director followed by a string of office boys.

He deals with officials who are obsequious, respectful, vacant. They tell him that their salaries are quite high and they get promoted often; they engage in fluffy, childlike conversations. He is confronted by an official, a “Sultan of undiluted negativism,” who “drowns [him] in a sea of stuff. Rather than what can be done, he knows best what can not.” Throughout his bureaucratic ordeal, Turgut is in dialogue with an imagined Selim with whom he’s cajoling and recriminating but from whom he’s also hungry for an irreverent perspective: “You left me in this machine and I let my jacket get caught in the teeth of the wheel; the only thing to do now is to take the jacket off, but the rule permitting it has still not been put into effect.”

Encounters with authority and rationality — particularly in these slavish, cultlike manifestations — slowly push at the limits of Turgut’s understanding of himself and signal a descent into the language of madness. This is his way out of the various boundaries of expectation encircling him — less a total collapse than the crossing into his own alternative reality bounded by a different set of relationships.

¤

There are currently only 200 printed copies of the English translation of The Disconnected in existence. The book was published by Olric Press in 2017 — a private imprint formed by the translator, Sevin Seydi, specifically to publish the work. I was only able to access a PDF version following a chance encounter in a park in Istanbul (my makeshift book made from printed sheaves of paper has long since disintegrated). There is reportedly an English publisher currently working to bring out The Disconnected, but it’s not certain which translated version will be used.

In 2002, UNESCO put the book at the head of its list of Turkish works of which translation was essential, warning that it would be a very difficult task. But a legendary English translation was already in existence. Seydi, a close friend and lover of Atay’s (to whom he dedicates the book), had translated it simultaneously with the original work’s composition, while the pair lived close together in Hayriye Street in the central Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. The English translation published today is the result both of the dialogue of their relationship and the tricks of time. After her initial translations had been rejected by all UK publishing houses in 1969, Seydi returned to her work 30 years later after finding a letter from Atay in which he expressed his wish for the book to be published in English. By that time, she had been living in London for several decades and had acquired a different relationship with the intricacies of the English language. By that time, too, Atay had departed us. He died in 1977, aged 43, of a brain tumor. He received his final, unsuccessful treatment at a North London hospital near the home of Seydi. They stayed close to each other, physically and emotionally, until the very end of his life.

As Ekici explains:

Seydi’s translation is not only a very successful and masterly translation, it is also by somebody who has unique access to the “authorial intention” of The Disconnected; there is almost a symbiosis of the translator. […] In this respect, it must be either unique or an extremely rare case in the history of translation. Seydi inspired Atay to write this book; she is the inspiration of the main female protagonist of the book; the book is dedicated to her; she started the translation by picking up the sheets coming out of Atay’s typewriter; she even drew the cover of the first edition.

Yet why all the initial rejections? Perhaps the Anglophone world was not prepared for what Ekici calls a “big, difficult, sprawling, modernist novel.” Yet, as Turkish literary critic Meltem Gürle argues, The Disconnected can be read in dialogue with the work of Dostoyevsky and Joyce. In an interview with the Turkish literary periodical K24, Gürle claims that readers can

hear Dostoyevsky’s voice here. As a novelist living and producing in the East, he finds himself drawn towards Europe on the one hand, and on the other hand admits that it is just a cemetery. […] I think Atay is writing from a similar contradiction. Like Dostoyevsky or Joyce, he realizes that he is on the periphery. […] But he also knows that he is giving voice to brand new material, breathing life into it.

More precisely, then, perhaps the publishing world was not prepared for such a work to emerge from Turkey, grueling as The Disconnected is in its diverse frames of references, dizzying subversions, and conflicted (sometimes playful, sometimes contemptuous) relationship with Western canons. Such a position represents a challenge not only to the worldview of the West — pushing at the boundaries of analytical thinking through a variety of colloquialisms, idiosyncrasies, verbal conventions, local jokes, and newspeak — but also to the very authority of the Western voice itself. This is not a straightforward rejection (certainly not a standard binary of “East” versus “West”) but a testing of the various boundaries imposed by different forms of authority, of which the translation of Western modernist reforms into the Turkish context is one. In “Atay’s dialogue with the authors of the western canon,” Gürle writes, “the individual positioning himself against his ‘other’ calls the absolute into question, challenging it through laughter, which emerges like a cosmic weapon capable of shattering the ground of anything that has manifested itself as authority.”

Gürle has written extensively about The Disconnected as a “world text” in its dialogue with other modernist novels that deal with similar questions. Rather than merely being a work of imitation, or direct opposition, the novel takes the particular Turkish experience of what claims to be “universal” (the bourgeois idea of modernity) as the grounds of critique, and answers with a plurality of voices. While this multiplication of signifiers makes meaning inaccessible, it is itself the subject of parody and mockery. But this is not to say the work rejects meaning completely. “There is a game, of course,” suggests Gürle,

but I don’t think it was done just for the sake of playing. Instead, I think the novel is built on a very fundamental existential question. I think that the search for a meaning continues, and the absence of this meaning fills Atay’s text with a sense of mourning and loss unique to modernism.

¤

Toward the middle of The Disconnected, we are treated to an elongated and grotesque brothel scene (where “life itself” can be found). Turgut is intent on punishing Metin, another of Selim’s acquaintances, whom he suspects of having done him wrong. The punishment is vulgarity and excess — gluttony and consumption devoid of desire. Turgut makes himself as unpleasant as possible, snide and full of false empathy. Metin is too easily pleased with himself to realize that Turgut is making fun of him. He believes himself a romantic, which disguises his true opinion of women, which is crass and materialistic. Turgut takes him, idiotic and drunk, to Brothelia to “throw [them]selves into the arms of Venus.” (“There is no one working here by that name” is the deadpan response of the Madam.) Here they find “[f]labby women, eye make-up streaking their moist cheeks; mean-spirited men with vacant expressions; cheap curtains, like bed-sheets. Everything is as it should be. How easy it is to be ugly. Cigarettes in ashtrays like a heap of dead beetles.”

Turgut imagines a scene of transformation — the “best builders, architects, decorators, carpenters, furniture makers, painters, upholsterers in the world,” who will “burn all this junk” — in an attempt at development and progress, removing the ugly scene and its disorderly transactions and replacing them with elegance and style (epitomized by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra).

But what about the people? What will happen to them? Who will change them? Change? What an idea! Who would dare imitate, even less improve, the red-lacquered broke nail of that prostitute whose arm is hanging down the side of the divan? Not one of you is worth the tip of her nail, in spite of all your pomp, all your cunning. […] Leave everything as it is. We have our own way of doing things.

We follow the drunkards’ song as it weaves through the dead city streets, politely obeying the etiquette of the road.

It rose, it changed its tune to “I am lonely, I am sick,” and got mixed up with the lisping tune sung by Niyazi Bey, retired from the statistics head office and Arif the dice-player, in the bar across the road, just about to close for the night. […] It got off the bus one stop before the workman and on to another bus, going in the opposite direction. It read, with the ticket-collector, down to the last advertisement, a popular newspaper, which slavishly flattered the government. […] It flung itself into the street. […] Two long-haired young men, wearing red velvet jackets, started following it. It began running as fast as possible to escape, afraid of being caught and westernised.

These are portraits of everyday life in the city, exhausted workers subsisting within an alienating political system, with its strict rules of what can and cannot be said and done. They are also vivid descriptions of Atay’s own personal depression and anxiety. The Disconnected is thus made up not only of those outside the bounds of the nation-building project, not only of those dispossessed by capitalism, not only of those desiring escape from a totalizing identity, but also of those whose vulnerability “is both a curse and a gift that enables them to see more than the others.”

But if The Disconnected is a document of a person imprisoned in his own mind at a particular historical moment, it is also a vision of the anarchist potential of the imagination, in which the voice of the “other” is provoked, belittled, and parodied but also used as a tool to puncture the assurances of power. According to Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, the anarchic element contained within the voice of the “other” is characterized by “carnival laughter,” a transformative force that disrupts the boundaries of the known and the strictures of power. And yet Turgut’s accumulation of information about Selim’s life and relationships, with its reconfiguration of the boundaries of rationality and order, is not enough to give meaning to his death. Losing him is beyond reason or explanation. Humor and agony go hand in hand.

The end of the book is a written appeal by Turgut, addressed to the honorable judges, for him to be accepted into the ranks of The Disconnected. Neither he nor Selim could hold on to life or sanity in the particular matrix of their society. But through their despair, alienation, and vulnerability, and separated by the boundary of time, they held on to each other.

¤

Acknowledgment: My thanks to Ayşegül Turan, Nazım Çapkın, and Seçkin Erdi for their help sourcing material for this essay.

¤

Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank. She is currently researching issues relating to Syrian refugee governance in Turkey.