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  • Excavating Memory: Bilge Karasu’s Istanbul and Walter Benjamin’s Berlin by Ülker Gökberk
  • Azade Seyhan (bio)
Excavating Memory: Bilge Karasu’s Istanbul and Walter Benjamin’s Berlin. By Ülker Gökberk. Boston, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2020. xii + 288 pp. $109.00

Despite its subtitle “Bilge Karasu’s Istanbul and Walter Benjamin’s Berlin,” this book is not an ordinary comparative study of two writers’ memories of their respective cosmopolitan cities. Istanbul and Berlin have often [End Page 165] been represented in fictional and critical literature as sites of layered and multifaceted memories. Both cities have served as the setting and even the main character of novels, such as Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or Orhan Pamuk’s Kara Kitap (Black Book), among others. What distinguishes Excavating Memory from many comparative studies is its bold move to bring two writers from different cultural and historical contexts into a dialogue that not only reflectively illuminates their respective works and life stories but also contributes a novel approach to critical comparative studies.

As an experimental writer with a philosophical bent of mind and a penchant for nonmimetic expression, Karasu has been a suitable subject for postmodern readings of his work. Gece (1985), his first novel to be translated into English as Night in 1994, can be read as both an allegory of political persecution and a metafiction, where a writer and his or her editor eerily comment on each other’s texts in footnotes. Karasu’s talent for allegorizing abstract concepts has led to the comparisons of his work with Franz Kafka’s parables of transcendent desolation. Night subverts our horizon of expectations to reveal alternative dimensions of reality, in this instance, a reality censored by the state and the subconscious. Despite its singularity of style and context, Karasu’s work often necessitates a search for reference points in comparable texts, as it resists any singular interpretation.

Although she recognizes the appeal of Karasu’s work for postmodern critics, Gökberk endeavors to widen the range of Karasu scholarship by situating his cross-generic writings at the intersection of Turkish and German Studies. In the “Introduction,” she acknowledges that Karasu (1930–1995) and Benjamin (1892–1940), separated in time, place, sociopolitical milieu, cultural context, and even in genre, could not easily be imagined as partners in a hermeneutic dialogue. While Karasu is predominantly a fiction writer, Benjamin is anything but. In any case, Gökberk places both on an equal footing as cultural critics and accompanies them on their way down memory lane to the lost spaces of Istanbul and Berlin, respectively. She braves reading Lağımlararası ya da Beyoğlu, which she translates as “Mother of Black Waters or Beyoğlu,” a posthumously published collection of Karasu’s untranslated (auto) biographical sketches of Istanbul’s once cosmopolitan enclave Pera—meaning “beyond” in Greek—or the present Beyoğlu, against Benjamin’s by far well-known and multiply translated Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (Berlin Childhood Around 1900). Her critical objective is to bring “Benjamin’s topographically defined concept of remembrance into dialogue with Karasu’s poetics of memory” (9). In effect, this hermeneutic approach facilitates the understanding of Karasu’s work by reference to parts of Benjamin’s work—specifically to the latter’s concepts of “dialectical [End Page 166] image,” “now-time,” “past become space,” “threshold,” and “redemption.” At the same time, these concepts are concretized by reference to the whole, to the body of Karasu’s and Benjamin’s writings.

While the major focus of Gökberk’s study is on a collection of Karasu’s sketches about Pera, posthumously edited and published by the late critic Füsun Akatlı, Benjamin’s autobiographical work serves as a heuristic premise for explicating Karasu’s nonmimetic figuration of memory. Gökberk restates that Benjamin, son of a wealthy Jewish family, who grew up in the Wilhelmine Germany and the Weimar Republic and was hunted to death by the Nazis; and Bilge Karasu, an accomplished master of the Turkish language, an experimental stylist, whose work crossed genres—short story, novel, essay, radio play, and translation—who grew up in Istanbul, lived both in Istanbul and Ankara, and was...