The Miraculous Mandarin
The Miraculous Mandarin, an intensely poetic, nocturnal yet vibrant book, is the very first written by the author. With this book, she came to the attention of literary circles in Turkey and established herself as a writer with a unique, dense style and as a master of expression although as the first work, it was eclipsed to a certain extent by the success of the later novel, The City in Crimson Cloak, generally referred as her best book and masterpiece. However, it has remained the favorite of some, especially of poets, as its lyricism and poignancy is never surpassed in the later, more mature works. The confrontation with the experience of parting and exiledom is genuine and strong, the observations on the otherness and Europe are keen, risky themes as the death and the wound, loss and mourning are dealt without any comprimise. The destiny of this first book dramatically changed when it came to the attention of Jean Descat, the famous translator of Serbo Croation as well as a scholar of Russian literature. Jean Descat, learning Turkish at that time, found his own experience in this short novella as a foreigner who has lived several decades in Geneva and decided to translate the book into French. (Since then, Jean Descat has established himself also as a translator of Turkish, translating many classics along with the later works of Ash Erdogan, for Actes Sud.) Due to his wonderful translation, the book suddenly received the attention of French literary critics, including the notorious Josyane Savigneau. However, the biggest literary success of the book was in Sweden, it was chosen among the Books of the Year along with Joyce Carol Oates and Murakami. Since then, The Miraculous Mandarin has been translated and published in German, Italian, Norwegian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Albanian and Macedonian.
Ode to brevity (Josyane Savigneau, Le Monde)
It is a beautiful novel, with an uncomprimising melancholy, as well in its attitute as in its language, which balances at the edge of elegant postexpressionism.(Dagens Nyheter, Sweden)
Erdogans language glitters clearly, lyrical and condensed, full of bittersweet sentences. It is a pearl with dark lustre (Norrkopings Tidningar, Sweden)
With her sharp reflection Erdogan unveils several senses of being half, woman, immigrant,
Muslim and so on. And the underlying criticism of the novel against the view of the other has only gained importance during the years that have past since writing the novel. This account has, just all relevant contemporary literature, a range which reaches far beyond its purpose. (Tidningen Kulturen)
The quality which carries her texts to literary heights is the dense and intensively vibrant poetic language... Ash Erdogan. Remember that name. The Turkish author has enough literary gunpowder in her slender body to tremble a whole world. (Helsingsborgs Dagblad)
The Miraculous Mandarin, referring to the ballet with the same name by Bela Bartok, is composed of two thematically connected novellas, that take place in two cities: Istanbul and Geneva. Two terminals and facets of a journey in the boundary of past and present, inner world and outer reality, life and death. (In the French edition by Actes Sud, only the first novella was published as Le Mandarin Miraculeux while the second novella was published in a later collection, Les Oiseaux de Bois.)
The narrator of the In the Void of a Lost Eye, is a 27 year old, blond, immigrant Turkish woman with bandages covering half of her face. She had lost one of her eyes due to a reason that will never be made explicit to the reader, as the reason for her exile. The lost eye is treated in both levels, as a real illness with detailed descriptions of the physical pain, treatment and the ed vision of semiblindness, as well as a wound, a metaphor for loss, separation, parting, splitting. The reader follows her foot steps in one long, interminable night, in the semilit, deserted streets, the riverbanks and bridges Geneva. As we walk deeper and deeper into the night in concentric circles, a semifictional, sensory universe is slowly built through images in which the city is starts to take shape and breathe. The Old Town with its narrow, cobble stone streets and statues, the river junction, the immigrant quarters, the red light district... Geneva, a foreign, yet to be discovered city, or the outer reality, assumes another, more real existence under this semidark gaze, a vision that from the very starts confesses it can only see the dark, obscure side of the reality.
The style overlaps with the content, the narrative is formed of several texts, small spirals in time and place. Some texts are poignant and poetic, built up of images, some texts are more abstract and metaphorical, probing deeper into vision and void, some are only broken pieces of dialogues, with her doctor, with her exlover, Sergio, with men she meets at the red light district, with prostitutes... The reminiscences of lost love, or late discovered passion and forbidden desire, slowly emerge while the ghost of Istanbul becomes more and more apparent as she spirals in wider circles in her past. Her story is set upon contradictions and oppositions: she is now chasing desperately the past that she had run away from (Istanbul), her denied womanhood and sexual desire, has finally captivated and entrapped her, the life that she has always been bound to watch bitterly from a bridge, now has flourished within herself. She is doomed to chase whatever she is most afraid of. All the conflicts, the splits and crevasses center around the eye, the lost eye, the metaphor for the eternal exile.
The namesake of the book, Miraculous Mandarin is an old Chinese legend that has also inspired Bartok. An old, ugly mandarin visits a beautiful prostitute. Her bandit friends attack him and try to rob him but no sword can harm the mandarin. Only when the woman starts to caress him with real tenderness and desire, the wounds become visible, reopen and bleed. In the novella, the female narrator tells this ancient myth to her lover, in the morning of their first night, as one of her favorite myths. The third character in the novella is Michelle, a very beautiful, daring, passionate, woman, a creation of the narrator, a fictional personality that she has built up as her binary opposite, but so far, she had not been able to compose a story for her. At the end of the night, the two women, the wounded creator and her d perfect Michelle, will meet in the dangerous back streets of Geneva, at the crossroad of imagination and reality, at the moment of death, which will finally give the lost eye its full vision and meaning.
The second novella, A Visitor from the Country of the Past, is symmetric opposite of the first. The narrator is a 42 year old Turkish man, and his dismal journey takes us to Istanbul on a winter day, when the melting snow is replaced by mud and fog. Ottoman cemeteries, the gray waters of Bosphorus, the poor, run down working class districts, a small pine forest overlooking the old city, muddy, colorless streets, cold and suffocating cafes, quagmires, dead or dying street animals...
The story opens on the Mont Blanc Bridge in Geneva, on 21st of December, the longest night of the year, while the city is preparing for the Christmas. A memory is a rickety old bridge which never takes you across to the other side. Looking at the Alps, buried in thick, yellowish smog, the narrator is trying to jump across a crevasse of time and memory, to December 21st of the previous year.
As we follow him in his desperate and frantic journey through snowcovered Istanbul, jumping from taxi to taxi, running into the bushes a horse beaten to madness, we realize that he always ends up in the same blind spots. A love story, which has in fact grown cold and devoid of love for some years, is trying to be reconstructed but death seems to jut out in every corner, warning us of its omnipresence, turning each path into a dead end. Reminiscences, remorse and guilt, muddy, down trodden side streets of an enduring relationship, trampled over and over... The images of the woman become more and more alive as they are intertwined with the images of Istanbul.
Only towards the very end of the novella, we hear her true voice, when we read her farewell letter, one of the most lyrical and painful passages in the book, more confrontational and genuine than anything the narrator had so far confessed. We realize that it is his wife, afflicted with cancer, terminally ill, calling him, begging him not to leave her alone in the final moment. In fact, this dark, frantic journey is but one piece in the massive jigsaw of anticipation of death that has gone much longer than he could endure. As he arrives home at the beginning of the longest night, far too late to see his wife alive for the last time, he cant escape from being confronted by Death, which so far he had avoided at all costs, in the bizarre, funeral ceremony that the children hold for a dying street dog, a puppy. From now on, he is destined to be an exile, only a visitor in his own past. This tear inducing story of loss and guilt, an elegy for the forever gone, gives its narrator and the reader a glimpse of hope, a path leading into the future at the finale, when the fog is momentarily blown away and Mont Blanc becomes visible in its full glory and magnificence.
Both novellas deal with the question of being an immigrant, or an exile, in a foreign city, in Europe, in the present as well as being an exile in your own homeland and own past.