Kaya Genç introduces PEN Atlas readers to Şavkar Altınel: travel writer, inspiration for a famous literary character, translator of famous British poets and resident of Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. But above all Altınel is a poet in his own right, comparable with Larkin for his ‘dry lyricism’ and nostalgia
Şavkar Altınel, arguably the most talented contemporary poet in the Turkish language, lives in Berkhamsted, a small town near London, the birthplace of Graham Greene and William Cowper. He earns a living as a translator and interpreter. Turkish speakers who use his services are lucky to have him translate their words: after all he has rendered poems by the greats – ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer to Philip Larkin – into Turkish.
Born in Istanbul in 1953, Altınel made Britain his home more than three decades ago. He sends his Turkish manuscripts to his editors in Istanbul where they are sought after by a small but devoted circle of readers. To date Altınel has published four poetry collections, a book of literary criticism, and four not easily classified books in prose which appear in the “Travel” section of his publisher’s catalogue, but are, in each case, so carefully organised around a set of themes that they are more like novels in disguise. His translations from English, meanwhile, include From an Island in the North: Fifty Poems by Fifty English Poets from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, which he selected and turned into Turkish single-handedly, and a verse translation, complete with internal rhymes, of The Ancient Mariner. In 2011 he was awarded the prestigious Erdal Öz literary prize for “his devotion to literary values and his bridging of different literatures”. Like the mysterious and often unnamed speaker in his poems, Altınel indeed bridges different cultures but that experience may be said to turn him into a ghostlike figure, drifting between British, Turkish and European cities (with the odd excursion to China or the Australian Outback thrown in to collect material for his travel books). It is difficult to define Altınel, whose surname means ‘the golden hand’ in Turkish, so constantly does he wander as a cloud.
In person Altınel is a reticent figure. When I met him after his award ceremony in Istanbul, we talked about Joseph Conrad, one of our shared obsessions, before he pointed to the crowd composed of Turkey’s biggest city’s literati and culture journalists. “I have to say I don’t know any of these people,” he said. The ignorance was mutual: a significant number of the Turkish journalists and critics I met that evening were embarrassed to admit they had never read Altınel’s poems. Although Altınel had written all his works in Turkish, it seemed as if he was somehow lost in translation, even though his output doesn’t need translation to be enjoyed by his Turkish readers. I remember leaving the building that evening with a sense of fascination by the idea of a writer who had managed to become a foreigner both in England and Turkey.
I wondered how Altınel achieved this status of the solitary foreigner, not exactly desirable for authors, who want to inhabit a place where they can produce works safe in the knowledge that they are at home. His poems, which I have been reading for more than a decade now, partly explain his position. They describe the strange sense of pleasure their speaker’s experience alongside darker feelings of loss and alienation.
When I first read his poetry, returning to Istanbul after a year away in Amsterdam, I was particularly impressed by Altınel’s sense of nature and weather. The centrepiece of his poetical constructions is the lansdscape in all its solitary beauty. People and their feelings are left in the background, portrayed as insignificant when compared to the sublime feelings evoked by the visible world. The first stanza of ‘Before Going to Bed’, a poem which is part of his collection Cities Traversed at Night published in 1992, is about the nocturnal observations of a man who is just about to go to bed:
Looking out of the window,
I see the valley enveloped in darkness,
the silhouettes of houses and trees
are almost impossible to make out,
even the glow of London
which always tints the clouds on the horizon
has lost its strength:
Everything’s strange, distant, alien now.
Altınel’s best poems create such intimate and solitary moments which evoke memories of lost friends, places and ideals. His characters move from place to place, occupied by little besides reminiscences of their youthful dreams. Altınel describes the movements of these world-weary figures in kitchens, train stations, attics and restaurants with a somewhat dry lyricism. When his characters have lovers or friends, they are often asleep or absent from the scene. His 1999 poem “The Transparent Double”, part of his collection Dull Lights, turns the reader into a spectator of its solitary speaker, asking him to become the speaker’s double:
Waking up shivering in the deck-chair
where I fell asleep while reading,
I wonder where summer’s gone
and at what point the years began
to hand me over from one winter to another,
reducing light and heat to a distant memory.
I reach for my book fallen from my hands,
but it’s already too dark
to make out the words.
Eventually I give up and go inside;
my fingers find the electric switch
and there appears outside the window
the room’s double, transparent and unreachable.
Like the unreachable double of his living room, Altınel’s speakers wander on earth, their minds constantly occupied with the idea of an alternative life, which is the life that they had desired to live when young. Their experiences lead them to a profound sense of disillusionment that makes them incapable of living their lives.
Two years ago I sent an e-mail to Altınel where I posed a number of questions about his work. He replied in a matter of days. I learned that he had never tried translating his poems or publishing them in Britain. “The British literary world is more or less a closed shop,” he wrote. “It is not easy for a foreign writer to find an outlet for his work here.” I was surprised to learn that Altınel values his prose works more than his poetry. “If the Devil turned up one day and asked me to sell him my soul in return for a book deal with an English publisher, I would give him my travel books, instead of my poems. I have translated one of those books, but unless the Devil really pays a visit, I have no intention of doing anything with the manuscript.”
Altınel had wanted to be “a prose writer and write novels in English, but somehow ended up becoming a poet writing in Turkish.” He believes that had he written his poems in English he would have written exactly the same things. “Philip Larkin, the greatest English poet since Wordsworth, wanted to be a novelist instead of a poet. He said that if he could write novels they would say exactly the same things as his poems, but would be richer and more detailed. I feel the same about writing in English: I would have been the same writer but maybe with a bigger audience.”
In 2002, Altınel’s friend the novelist Orhan Pamuk used him as an inspiration for Ka, the protagonist of his novel Snow. Pamuk said in a throwaway line during an interview that it was his dear friend Altınel who had inspired Ka: the depressed poet who travels to Kars where he finds himself in the midst of a coup d’état. Ka composes poems throughout the novel but although their titles are revealed to us, we don’t get to read them. His presence in the novel also exemplifies Pamuk’s fascination with wordplay. In Turkish kar means snow; Snow takes place in Kars, with its protagonist named Ka; and, of course, Altınel’s first name is Şavkar.
“I used to see a great deal of Orhan at the time he was writing Snow. He asked me to describe the experience of writing a poem. I told him it was almost a mystical experience, where the world gets illuminated and matter turns into meaning. There are traces of our conversations in Snow. And of course there is a connection between the snow crystal in the novel, and my poem, ‘Crystal’. This was a kind of in-joke he put into the book.”
Altınel’s poems might not have yet found the audience they deserve but there is little doubt that their speaker has become famous thanks to this rather surreal postmodern page in Turkish literary history. It is about time his fellow Berkhamstedians were given the chance to read him in English.
About the Author
Kaya Genç is a Turkish novelist and essayist. He specialises in late-Victorian authors and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Conrad, Wilde and Stevenson. Newsweek Turkey named him as one of Turkish literature’s 20 under 40. His essays appeared, both in print and online, in the Guardian, London Review of Books, Songlines, Sight & Sound, Index on Censorship, the Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Millions and many others. He translated ten books into Turkish (Tom McCarthy’s C, among others), writes both in his native tongue and in English and lives in Istanbul.