Labyrinth: A Novel
- By Burhan Sönmez; translated by Űmit Hussein
- Other Press
- 192 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- December 19, 2019
A man attempts to reclaim his identity after losing his memory in a suicide attempt.
Though he doubts everything else about himself, there is no doubt that Boratin, the narrator of Burhan Sönmez’s novel Labyrinth, is going through an identity crisis.
He has just thrown himself off Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge and survived with nothing more than a broken rib and a total loss of memory, a rather unlikely result considering that the bridge stands over 200 feet above the water.
But the reader is under no illusion that Boratin’s story is meant to be true to life. Labyrinth, like many fictional works written in reaction to political oppression, is an allegory that explores the fractured nature of the individual in a society suspended between a rich, complicated past and an uncertain future.
This split consciousness is illustrated by the seamless slipping between first and third person, with “I” becoming “Boratin,” and back again, sometimes in the same scene. The narrative arc depicts Boratin’s quest to uncover the person he was through the physical details of his life.
Like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Labyrinth begins with the main character waking up in bed to a strange new world. In Boratin’s case, he is awoken by a ringing — a recurring motif — of his alarm clock the morning after returning from the hospital. Like Gregor Samsa, Boratin takes a look around his room, which gives the reader, and him, clues to the character of the room’s inhabitant.
All Boratin has to go on is the apartment, his body, and what he was told at the hospital. He is a “man who was trying to create a whole person out of his broken rib and his blank memory.” The reference to the rib, of course, conjures the biblical Creation story, with the “I” standing in as Boratin’s Eve, the new being created from the life of another.
Another ringing, this time of the telephone. How can he answer when he doesn’t know who he is, but the person on the other end of the line does? He doesn’t pick up the phone.
A third bell sounds. It’s the doorbell announcing his friend Bek, who serves as his Virgil, accompanying Boratin through the Limbo of his own life, narrating his past, introducing him to old friends, and telling him about his relationship with them. But first, upon entering the apartment, Bek notices that Boratin has cut himself and extracts the piece of glass before washing Boratin’s feet.
Despite the Christian imagery, Labyrinth is not about the spiritual. Nor, surprisingly, is it political, even though the writer, a Kurd whose people have been savagely oppressed by the Turkish government, was brutally beaten by Istanbul police while peacefully demonstrating, and is described in the cover bio as “a political exile” living in Britain. Rather, the novel is even more elemental, confronting the most basic existential facts of a human life: the body, the mind, and time.
Though imbued with echoes of Kafka, Dante, Cervantes, The Thousand and One Nights, and the Bible, it is Jorge Luis Borges who bestrides the novel, proclaimed right there in the title and with this epigraph from Seven Nights: “It only takes two facing mirrors to construct a labyrinth.”
The metaphor of the mirror, so important to Borges, permeates Sömnez’s story. Boratin is fascinated with the paradox of the mirror that reflects the physical world while changing it. (“The world outside the mirror is one entity, and the world inside it another. When you put them together they become one.”)
Indeed, the story grapples with many of the themes that obsessed Borges. What is this illusion that we call identity? (“Boratin is no one. But he also weighs the other possibility: He could also be everyone.”)
Is there free will, or are our lives at the mercy of forces beyond our control? (Boratin, attending the funeral of a childhood friend who has died of cancer while he, himself, has just survived a suicide attempt, thinks, “Why aren’t I in this coffin, and why am I the one looking at the coffin from the outside[?]”)
Does history go in a straight line or is it an “eternal cycle,” leading us right back to where we came from? (When Boratin looks at the statue of Jesus and Mary that decorates the mantlepiece of his apartment, he thinks, “I see Rome inside the map of Istanbul.”)
The plot itself is a riff on one of Borges’ most famous stories, “Funes the Memorious,” about a man whose fall off a horse causes him to remember everything he ever experienced.
Űmit Hussein’s translation perfectly captures the absurd tension of Boratin’s existential dilemma with simple yet evocative prose. The spare punctuation blurs Boratin’s inner thoughts and spoken conversation. As the labyrinth through which he wanders, the city of Istanbul is itself a richly rendered character central to Boratin’s quest for an identity.
In Borgesian fashion, Labyrinth circles back to where it begins, with Boratin stuck in traffic on the Bosphorus Bridge, “in the middle of Istanbul, in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the night, between two continents, in the middle of the world and in the middle of life.”
Which way will he go? To the opposite shore, of course.
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People and writes a regular column for the Independent, Alice in Wordland.