fiction, review


Indonesian edition’s cover

There are times when we look at our society, we feel that we are actually imprisoned in our own home, a place where we’re supposed to be safe. Bliss by Zülfü Livaneli, a remarkable work of Turkish literary fiction, reflects accurately the notion. Set across the land of Anatolia and Istanbul, it unfolds the bitter fact of social oppression in a secular country where, in truth, religious belief and modernity stand side by side, merely separated by a very thin, transparent line. Livaneli manages to set up an atmosphere so pulling that the reader can feel the restlessness of people living in a traditional, social jail.

Cleverly told in two separate parts overlapping in one whole narrative, Bliss talks about three people who have to deal with what their society wants them to do and to be. Meryem is found losing her virginity and deemed dirty by her family and surroundings. The leader of the village, her own uncle, decides that she has to be executed. She has two options, committing suicide, or having one of her male family members kill her. Unable to end her own life, she is sent to Istanbul to face her death penalty in the city. Cemal, her cousin who has just returned from war, is appointed to do the dirty job. Emotionally damaged after killing his own best friend, Cemal feels nothing but numbness and a sense of responsibility toward his father. So he takes Meryem to Istanbul, with mixed feelings of disgust and compassion for his future victim.

On the way, they meet Irfan, a prominent university professor who suffers severe depression and is running away from the so-called normal life. Their encounter changes everything in them, and especially the way they see things. Irfan, who always tries to hide his true self inside, looks at Meryem and decides that there must be something wrong with her. She is too timid and shy for a bright girl, and seems to keep something awful. Irfan attempts to make her open up to him, revealing what she fears and what she’s doing in Istanbul with her cousin. Until one night, something horrendously shocking happens and eventually tears her secret open. Later after that night, Meryem has to decide on her own the life path she is going to take in the future.

Bliss presents to us such intricate characters laced with depression, trauma, confusion, feeling of lost. The three of them are the result of the social molding who feel uncertain about themselves. Meryem, born and raised in a traditional, strict, religiously fanatical family of East Anatolia, gamely and determinedly refuses to commit suicide for a sin that people are not supposed to blame on her. She’s innocent, yes, but she’s mostly described as strong and brave. Meanwhile, Cemal is just her opposite. Nationalist and brutally faithful to his religion, he looks so arrogant, patriarchal, tough and so able to bear anything while inside his heart, where nobody can see, he’s always uncertain, anxious, and afraid of his father. And among them, Irfan is the most complicated one. A self-proclaimed atheist, he is cynical and unhappy in the cocoon of his pretentious life. He is escaping because he is afraid of death, but mostly, he is afraid of dying without leaving any legacies. He’s so wrecked inside, so damaged and emotionally hurt. But, aside from his inner conditions, he is a kind and generous man.

Bliss is, on the whole, a very riveting novel. Every sentence, every narration, every description of character, and every elaboration of social background are very much capturing. The narrative is not perfect, I must say, for it flows a little bit slow at the beginning, having to introduce the three characters one by one with their elaborated backgrounds and respective problems. What’s more, Livaneli seems a bit hasty in putting the conclusion at the ending, although it doesn’t disrupt the entire beauty of the story and the enjoyment of reading it. However, the overall plot is very nice to follow, captivating even. Slowly but surely, it streams forward and feels steady, despite being inserted with a shocking flashback in the middle. Along the book, Livaneli serves the reader with social upheaval, dilemma, and problems of Turkey of which cultures, traditions, and religious understandings dangerously vary. We can see that they hold nationalism very tightly, so tightly that they erase the significance of their inherited religion. They have a problem, a crisis of identity, but they keep quiet and ignore it. Their unfair treatment toward women keeps prevailing and there’s no one even feeling moved to change it. Through the story of Meryem, Cemal, and Irfan, Livaneli shows the reader the true social, cultural, religious color of his country. Livaneli is so blatant and flagrant in telling his story, so careful and clever in overlapping the pieces of his narrative, so down to earth and argumentative in putting forward the issue he deems important.

Bliss by Zülfü Livaneli is a very beautiful, very astounding, very brave and brazen novel. It’s not only wonderfully written in narrative and characterization aspects, but also in its content and message. Livaneli is definitely a brilliant writer, and I dare say so even though this is his only book I’ve ever read so far.

Rating: 4.5/5

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