Literature: What to Make of Complicity?

Turkish literature shows how difficult it is to balance political critique with literary experimentation. But it can—and, perhaps, must—succeed.

“The problem that troubles the novelist [is] how to justify a concern with morally dubious people in a contemptible activity,” notes South African writer J. M. Coetzee, “ … how to treat something that, in truth, because it is offered like the Gorgon’s head to terrorize the populace and paralyze resistance, deserves to be ignored.” Here, in the essay “Into the Dark Chamber,” Coetzee points out that literature exposing political terror—in this case, torture, the existence of which is repeatedly denied by repressive regimes—can actually become an inadvertent tool of that terror.

We might assume that literature can be mobilized to resist oppression by exposing it. But, what Coetzee emphasizes is that, in exposing the crimes, literature can also replicate the terms of the “game” and intensify fear, quashing the possibility of resistance—in part what torture is designed to do. For Coetzee, then, the “true challenge” for the novelist becomes “how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.”

Coetzee implicitly interrogates whether it is possible to write a politically committed yet self-conscious literature, which troubles its own position even as it takes a stance. Although Coetzee stops short of offering advice, such a potential literature might be grounded in the concept of complicity, designating a gray area between active perpetration and the imposed passivity of victimhood.1 This is what I call literatures of complicity, texts that rely on self-reflexivity to negotiate the line between literature’s potential to resist and align with sources of repression.

Often, the authors of texts of complicity suspect literature’s purity and its immunity from what it criticizes. They suspect their own position as artists, acknowledging the possibility that they might be or become complicit in what they are exposing. In the aftermath of atrocity, it is these more skeptical (perhaps even cynical) writers who produce the most politically nuanced works. Yet, because of the juxtaposition of political commitment to artistic autonomy, their more self-reflexive and experimental works become categorized as being apolitical, irresponsibly and unethically divorced from real suffering.

Thinking about the role of complicity in literature might offer a means of looking beyond these two poles, so that political commitment and artistic autonomy are no longer seen as antithetical. This new perspective can recognize the nuanced commentary such texts can offer on what responsibility, morality, and ethics might look like within the political, both for individuals and for literature, despite their lack of a clearly articulated partisan belonging. Contemporary Turkish literature illuminates how difficult it is to balance political critique with literary experimentation, as well as the potential power within even seemingly complicit literature. In a body of works dominated by literary realism, very few modern Turkish writers have embraced linguistic or formal experimentation, even in the 1960s and ’70s when postmodernism was at its height. Instead, Turkish literature responded to its fraught political history with socialist realism, using literature to communicate to readers the plight of the Turkish left, which was especially targeted by the military in the aftermath of the 1971 and 1980 coups. As a result, 20th-century Turkish literature is rich in what Sartre called commitment and scant on literatures of complicity. But the few exceptions that exist reveal the limitations of seeing political commitment and literary experimentation as being at odds.

Bilge Karasu and Orhan Pamuk are illuminating examples of authors who engage with the question of complicity—a deeply political endeavor, as I argue—but who refuse to provide a clear political alignment. Not surprisingly, both authors have been criticized for not being committed enough—Karasu called out as an aesthete and Pamuk considered to play it too safe against the state. And yet, Karasu and Pamuk think actively about literature’s complicity, an engagement that is categorically lacking in more realist attempts to convey political violence. Their experimental style may not seem to offer critique of Turkish politics, but actually does so in a manner more subtle, and, ultimately, more biting. The experimental style of Karasu and Pamuk highlight that writing itself is indeterminate and shiftless; this may make it an important tool of resistance, but it also opens language to corruption and co-optation.

Karasu and Pamuk articulate a self-reflexive politics of writing by exposing literature’s potential complicity. They pose questions about the role of the writer in unethical, immoral systems of oppression. “The writer,” explains an obscure narrator in Karasu’s experimental 1985 novel Gece (Night, translated to English by Güneli Gün), “by virtue of his role, has to depend on forms that are accessible to everyone, as well as to forge a language of his own.” As Coetzee notes, the problem is taking these forms and language—which are also utilized by systems of repression—and turning them against themselves.

Political literature is commonly associated with either sober realism or propagandistic didacticism. Historically realist depictions of political causes and dilemmas include Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter (a brilliant read), incidentally also the only novel Coetzee highlights in his essay as offering an appropriate response to torture. Among jingoistic calls to arms, the most obvious examples come from early Soviet literature, like Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement (a not-so-brilliant read).

The functionality of political literature, whatever its stance, has meant it is often seen as the opposite of literary experimentation. Experimental works are imagined to be apolitical because they do not prioritize communicating a message. German cultural theorist Theodor Adorno describes the two sides of this coin as “Sartrean goats and Valéryan sheep,” named after Jean Paul Sartre and Paul Valéry respectively and calling out their adherents, who then flock to either side of this debate. Sartre’s insistence on committed or engaged literature demanded literature to take a stance, to give voice to the silenced and oppressed. Valéry’s symbolism, on the other hand, aligned more readily with art for art’s sake. As Adorno observes, however, the two camps blend into each other—“the Sartrean goats and Valéryan sheep will not be separated.” It is difficult to think of literature as entirely distinct from its artistic qualities, as the “Sartrean goats” would want, a mere tool of political education. It is just as challenging to think of it as just a self-contained construction, separated from the world, a position for which Adorno’s shorthand is “Valéryan sheep.”

Adorno, who was quite wary of politically committed literature, put much more stock in art’s autonomy. Nonetheless, even he noted the risk of turning literature into “an idle pastime for those who would like to sleep through the deluge that threatens them.” Himself a victim of Nazism, he famously remarked that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The line has been much debated, but I am interested here in two possible interpretations. The beauty and escape proffered by art can seem almost perverse in the aftermath of mind-boggling horror. This is an important but disheartening possibility, especially given that art also functions as a means of contending with and transcending tragedy. But the second available interpretation is just as challenging: the barbarity of Auschwitz, so extreme and shattering, might contaminate all attempts of representation. Even in fictional and artistic representations, language used to describe the horror of Auschwitz cannot escape its brutality. Literature, by virtue of using language, always runs the risk of being co-opted by what it resists.

In such fraught territory, can literature ever formulate a responsible political position, not open to appropriation by systems of oppression? Literatures of complicity suggest that such control over writing and language might not be possible, but the impossibility is worth demonstrating. This rather self-destructive approach to literature, which shows the pitfalls of writing and language through writing and language, becomes a type of political commitment that unfolds through literary experimentation. In other words, literatures of complicity show a way to keep the goats and sheep together, as Adorno suspected they might need to remain. Such a self-conscious and self-doubting approach categorically undermines the authority of official histories and introduces much needed nuance to contexts still struggling with legacies of political violence, like Turkey.

Contemporary Turkish literature illuminates how difficult it is to balance political critique with literary experimentation.

Karasu and Pamuk were contemporaries. However, Pamuk is much better known in the English-speaking world, both because of Karasu’s untimely death in 1995 and Pamuk’s increasing fame (and availability in translation outside Turkey) in the aftermath of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.

Karasu was writing exceptionally complex, labyrinthine novels as early as the mid-1960s and never adopted anything akin to politically committed realism, even in his most overtly political novels like Gece. His more straightforward novels, like his last novel, Kılavuz (Guide, which has not been translated to English), still function like Borgesian mysteries that force the readers to think about writing as a construction, as anything but a straightforward means of communication. Pamuk, in contrast, often plays with plot, building enigmatic reading games that put him at odds with his milieu, especially at the beginning of his literary career. Despite this shared sensitivity, Karasu and Pamuk are as different as contemporaries from the same country can be, especially in terms of their style. While Pamuk’s Turkish favors detailed, adjective-filled sentences, Karasu pushes the limits of language in the opposite direction, paring down sentences until they become so dense that they are polysemous. He often uses “öz Türkçe,” pure Turkish, a nonstandard Turkish that is usually associated with nationalist attempts to excise foreign influences from Turkish. That Karasu, who neither writes nationalist literature nor is personally aligned with Turkish nationalism in any way, uses pure Turkish at all is one of the idiosyncrasies of his works that creates a sense of alienation for readers, drawing attention to the ambiguities and malleability of language. This attention to language, the desire to strip it into something new and alien, makes Karasu “an artificer of language” according to Aron Aji, who has translated two of Karasu’s works into English. It also makes his works intensely self-reflexive, suspicious of themselves and of language. In Karasu, literature cannot emerge as a political tool or become purely subversive, because literature, by virtue of language, escapes everyone’s control.

It is this susceptibility to ambiguity, achieved through an extremely frugal language, that turns Karasu’s texts into literatures of complicity that question their own potential complicity. Despite a lack of obvious political alignment or commentary, Karasu’s linguistic experimentation imbues his works with a marked political susceptibility that thinks through the broader relationship between literature and politics.

Consider Karasu’s Night, written five years after the brutal 1980 coup in Turkey. Even though Night deals with an impending dictatorship, its dystopia is so vague that the novel stands apart from other Turkish coup narratives that rely on realism. (That there is such a genre as coup narratives should give a sense of Turkey’s volatile history).

In fact, Night is not properly in Turkey. Instead, the novel never discloses its milieu or location. It narrates a world that is sinking rapidly into “the night” thanks to the work of “nightworkers,” nameless, nondescript men who walk around with their tools, kidnapping, disappearing, torturing people at will. Everyone lives in fear of them, although no one knows who they are or what they might want. The novel describes a newly emerging fascist regime of sorts. Even so, Night is not committed to a political critique (as Sartre might have wished). In fact, not only are there no names or specific events in the novel, but the reader is not even able to separate perpetrators from victims within the novel’s linguistic games.

Night is split into four sections, told by different narrators. The narrator of the first part is identified as “corrector, creator, author,” who writes down the realities of the emerging regime to better understand what he is experiencing. In the second part of the novel, the I of the narrator begins to refer to the dictator instead, the mastermind behind the impending night. The third section is told by a new narrator, the ex-wife of the dictator, while the fourth section is told by S., who accompanies the initial narrator on a trip outside Turkey. By the last section, it becomes impossible to distinguish the narrators from each other.

Deepening the difficulty, in the Turkish original, the first two narrators are identified only by their initials, N and O, which function as puns in Turkish. N is pronounced ne, which means “what.” O, on the other hand, is the third person singular, a general designator since Turkish does not have gendered pronouns (an uncertainty decided a little too readily in the translation with he). As the ambiguities multiply, N, which had initially referred to the writer being surveilled by the regime, begins to designate the dictator, leaving readers accidentally aligned with the perpetrator, albeit briefly. The I’s of the narration collapse onto one another and the dissident figure of resistance, the corrector/creator/author, becomes indistinguishable from the brutal dictator. In chapters titled “footnotes,” yet another I appears, discussing how the author, whoever that might be, should have constructed the narrative we hold. The only constant in this game is the artifice of writing, linguistic slips that make the text alternately a tool of resistance and repression.

In as subtle a writer as Karasu it seems remarkable that there should be such a heavy-handed gesture toward the similarities between the author and the dictator. This obvious parallel purposefully foregrounds complicity, both as it pertains to literature and as it pertains to the writer/intellectual. There might not be a way out of this position, but its recognition enables a more honest and responsible commitment that undoes itself even as it is postulated—an appropriate challenge to fascism, which draws so much of its power from metanarratives, truth-claims, and certainties.

As these details illustrate, more than a coup narrative, Night is a novel about the corruptibility of language and the ambivalence of literature. Thinking of Karasu’s own milieu might reveal the stakes of this realization.

Twentieth-century Turkey shaped its history through a fraught relationship with both language and literature. To cut ties with its Ottoman past and become westernized, the Republic of Turkey introduced a language reform in 1928, which Geoffrey Lewis termed a “catastrophic success,” that deeply changed the Turkish language, altering its vocabulary, syntax, and alphabet. It then mobilized novelists to write a Turkish consciousness into being, turning literature into a tool of nation-building.

Perhaps more importantly, 20th-century Turkish history is filled with examples of language being used as a tool for oppression, wielded to deny countless identities and experiences. After the 1980 military coup, for instance, the Kurdish language became anathema and called “mountain Turkish,” supposedly named Kurdish because of the sounds of footsteps in the snow, kart-kurt.

Such examples might seem far-fetched (and ridiculous). Yet, they reveal the ways in which language and literature have been contorted to aid oppression. Karasu approaches language and literature, both passions of his, suspiciously, also with this history in mind.

Unlike Karasu, Pamuk’s approach to complicity does not work through linguistic experimentation, but through intricate plots that demonstrate the artifice and power of writing. As readers become invested in the narratives’ mysteries, a casual detail tends to bring down the whole structure, seemingly mocking readers for taking the fiction too seriously.

In Pamuk’s 1985 novel The White Castle, for instance, two doppelgängers, a Venetian and an Ottoman scholar, become indistinguishable. Throughout the novel, the I of each man becomes increasingly difficult to tell apart, but the very last sentences of the novel muddle the entire narrative by suggesting that there might not have been two men at all. It might have been only one man (which of the two is up for debate) who might have fabricated the tale. This possibility emerges only in the novel’s closing three sentences, which is especially frustrating.

Yet, the readers have known from the beginning that this is all a fabrication. The novel’s frame narrative playfully solidifies the invention. The Ottoman story is a manuscript introduced by a contemporary archivist, Faruk Darvınoğlu, who claims to have found and transliterated it into modern Turkish. The White Castle opens with his three-page introduction, including his assertion that the title The White Castle was chosen by the publishers against his wishes. Blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction further, the novel’s dedication, which appears before the table of contents and thus masquerades as something paratextual, reads: “For Nilgün Darvınoğlu, a loving sister (1961-1980).” Then the frame and the archivist entirely disappear. The Darvınoğlus are part of the fiction. Further, they are characters from Pamuk’s second novel Silent House.  Since the readers have known from the beginning that the novel is written by Pamuk and not Darvınoğlu, they have known from the start that this is all artifice, a realization that is both strengthened and undermined by Pamuk’s intertextual reference to his previous novel.

Why then the frustration? Because, Pamuk suggests, writing creates its own reality, its own worlds. As the narrator’s identity blurs toward the end, they still insist: “I believed in my story!” We too believe in the story. The novel reminds us that this is all a game, but the game has high stakes. It simultaneously emphasizes literature’s autonomy and its ethical mooring. Literature has a right not to speak of its times, but if it can create reality, then its imaginations cannot be outside the realm of responsibility.

This dynamic is more visible in Pamuk’s 2002 novel Snow, which recounts a snowstorm in Kars, an eastern city bordering Armenia. The storm cuts off Kars from the rest of the country and the city’s different political factions begin to vie for power. A theater troupe passing through Kars stages a play to help locals pass the time, but the leading actor decides to stage a coup during the performance instead, an ironic take on a coup de théâtre. He is a staunch Kemalist wary of the Islamist presence in Kars and takes control of the city in the name of the Turkish Republic. Ironically, the play that turns violent is also about the tensions between Islamists and Kemalists in the early Republican era, further confusing the audience. They assume, understandably, that the staged coup is part of the performance. This initial inertia leads to more casualties as the audience stays put during the first rounds of gunshot.

A didactic play about Turkish Republic’s glory thus turns into a violent takeover replete with arrests, torture chambers, and executions, revealing Snow’s blistering criticism of Turkish state ideology. At the same time, Snow’s coup de théâtre emphasizes fiction’s ability to create its own reality, and, more problematically, its ability to commit violence or be appropriated to enact violence.

It is possible that Bilge Karasu was primarily an aesthete and Orhan Pamuk plays it too safe against the Turkish state. But their works are decidedly engaged with their milieu’s violence. They highlight indeterminacies in literature that are especially pertinent for political commitment, understood in the sense of giving voice to the oppressed. Karasu and Pamuk are committed to this project, if not to a clear political cause. Their perceived lack of commitment says less about their works and more about the binary between political commitment and aesthetic autonomy.

But especially when writing about political and ethical responsibility, literary experimentation seems to allow for a more nuanced political commitment, rather than being antithetical to it. Like Coetzee had suggested, fictional representations of political terror can always be co-opted by the terror they expose. As such, their only hope out of the conundrum might be to represent their vulnerable, complicit position. icon

  1. Because being complicit does not require intention or direct participation, it successfully captures literature’s status as being “folded-in” with what it exposes. This is, after all, the root of the word complicity: etymologically, it suggests being “folded-together” (from Latin, com– “together,” and plicare– “to fold”).
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. Featured image: photograph of Istanbul by Tolga Ahmetler / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)