Latife Tekin

BERJI KRISTIN: Tales from the Garbage Hills

Marion Boyars, #13.95 (pp 160)

THIS profoundly moving and magical allegorical novel, only comparable,

in my experience, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's A Hundred Years of

Solitude (though, inevitably falling short of that towering

masterpiece), tells the story of Flower Hill, a pitiful squatter

settlement cobbled together from the plastic detritus of consumerism on

a garbage dump on the outskirts of an unnamed Turkish city, almost

certainly Istanbul.

Here, in this universe of junk, nature itself has been corrupted, and

the conventions of poetic symbolism are similarly subverted in its songs

and stories. So the snow that falls ceaselessly on Flower Hill is toxic

waste, and the hot blue water that flows there is chemical effluent.

The first place to be named by the original settlers is Wind-Curse

Point, for the savage wind is as much a threat to their ramshackle walls

and flimsy roofs as the garbage owners' wreckers. Even the name, Flower

Hill, is an ironic imposition by a remote bureaucracy, designed to

obliterate all memory of its first baptism as Battle Hill, which

commemorated squatter resistance to the wreckers with their guns,

bulldozers, jeeps, and trucks.

The same bureaucrats attempt to rename Rubbish Road (still,

incidentally, a bus-stop between Istanbul and the Bosphorus) as Nato

Avenue, but the name fails to stick. There is already enough deformity.

Some of those who bathe in the hot blue water find their skin peeling,

while the faces of others turn purple. Bright blue spots come out on the

children's bodies, the hair of two women turns white. The black,

poisonous wind causes sweats and fevers. Bodies distort incurably.

In time, the noxious factories along Rubbish Road are joined by

mosques, coffee houses, gambling dens, a school, a bank, a football

team, even a cinema. There are prostitutes, a blind prophet, a fake

miracle, strikes and elections. Beneath the menacing wings of the

ever-present garbage birds, the voracious, scavenging gulls, Flower Hill

has become a terrible microcosm, encapsulating all the follies and

vanities of the human race, the inequalities and injustices of our


The writing of Latife Tekin has been admirably championed in recent

years by John Berger, who now contributes a short preface. He makes the

point that Tekin has written down ''what before had never been written

down,'' by which he means that, before her, no shanty town had entered

literature. Now 36, Tekin was born in the village of Karacefenk, near

Bunyan in central Turkey, where her literate mother, who spoke both

Kurdish and Arabic, entertained gypsy visitors carrying travellers'

tales. There are gypsies, too, in the Garbage Hills.

I imagine that her childhood grounding in the fantastic and romantic

literature of the East, with its djinns and fairies, was important to

the novel, Tekin's greatest achievement to date (though there is, one

hopes, still much more to come). But, in creating the mythic history of

Flower Hill, she has also used sharp observation -- and the ears and

recording skills of an anthropologist.

So we experience the rise and fall of the Flower Hill hut people as

seen through their own innocent -- and superstitious -- eyes (Benji

Kristin, I gather, means either ''the innocent prostitute'' or the

''prostitution of innocence'' in Turkish). To do so, she has had to

evolve her own story-telling language, rich in poetry and metaphor,

close to the oral tradition. It has the force and directness of, say,

Bunyan or, perhaps, the medieval mystery play. No knowing

twentieth-century voice ever intrudes.

The novel is also, needless to say, light years away from the jaded

artifice of much contemporary European modernism, and it says much for

this sensitive translation by Ruth Christie and Saliha Paker (who also

contributes and illuminating introduction) that it manages to convey the

sense of the singular and memorable epic that is far removed from our

own exper-


In Turkey itself, Tekin represents a new direction. The novels of

Yasar Kemal like Memed, My Hawk (now mostly available in translation

here) come from a different genre. They certainly have mythic and epic

elements, but predominate is socialist realism. Tekin on the other hand,

has succeeded in forging a new style that marks her as a truly original

voice from the other Turkey, the part that the glossy holiday brochures

never reach, and she deploys her new ''language of deprivation'' to

deliver a savage parable of capitalism in the Third World that is also a

devastating critique.

For the first time, over the past few years, I have seen teenagers

begging in Scottish stations, and the shaming phrase ''cardboard city''

has now entered our own language. Will single mothers and their families

soon join mental patients (expelled from mental hospitals for ''care in

the community'') on our streets? What has been happening to our own army

of dossers and bag ladies over the past few nights, with Scotland

shrouded in snow and ice? We, too, like it or not, are living on Flower