For many people, his literature is like a magical trap: filled with shadows, loneliness, poetry, philosophy, the past and the future. He is one of the most important Turkish authors to have been influenced by existentialism; as a novelist and a poet, he fearlessly plays around with time and place. Hasan Ali Toptaş’s first novel, Bir Gülüşün Kimliği, was published in 1987 and he has continued his literary adventure ever since, with works translated into many languages.
Toptaş was born in Denizli, Turkey, in 1958. At the same time that he was writing his novels, he was also working as a bailiff. In 1992, his collection of short stories, Ölü Zaman Gezginleri, won first prize in a competition organised by the Municipality of Çankaya, Ankara, and the literary magazine Damar. In 1994, his unpublished novel Gölgesizler won the Yunus Nadi Novel Award and in 1999, his other novel, Bin Hüzünlü Haz, won the Cevdet Kudret Literature Award. But what is it that makes Toptaş’s works so different from that of others? Mashallah News interviewed Toptaş about his writing and his relationship with the literary world.
I don’t think that time is just a thing that flows and falls away. Actually, it doesn’t disappear – it transforms constantly.
Firstly, we know that you like to use abstractions of time and place in your novels, but how do the country and city where you live affect your literature?
There’s a saying of Borges that comes to mind. In one of his interviews he says: “Even if I write a story that runs in the profundity of space, Argentina surely has a place in this story”. Of course, the country where you live and its culture have a place in your literature, as is the case in mine. But I don’t make any special efforts. As I said, it happens inevitably.
But do you feel that you belong to any place?
No, I don’t. Not to a city or country, nor to the world.
In the same context, what does living in Ankara, as opposed to Istanbul, the centre of culture and arts in Turkey, mean to you? Are there any difficulties or advantages?
I don’t attach any importance to the place I live. I don’t prefer living in Ankara; it’s just a coincidence, like my birth. It could be another place, like a small village in the Aegean region. I don’t know if Istanbul is the centre of culture and the arts, but I’ve never thought of living there and I don’t think I’ll want to do so in the future. Besides, living in Istanbul wouldn’t change anything in my life because I’m a person who likes living indoors, at home.
In your stories and novels you play with the past and future: you frequently use time ruptures and parallel timelines. In that sense, how do you perceive the “past” and the “future” as pieces of history?
In some sense, to write is to intervene in time; so one of the primordial reflexes of literature is to slow down time to stop it. There is a story titled Time Sometimes which I wrote about 20 years ago, and my perception of time emerges clearly in this story; in its first sentence, the story asks the question: “Does time always flow towards the future?”. I don’t think that time is just a thing that flows and falls away. Actually, it doesn’t disappear – it transforms constantly. Time is also a wall that constitutes the sum of all other times, the times of certain incidents and many other things.
What kind of process do you undergo while you’re writing? How do the streets, the people, reality influence you?
I’m a person who’s been mingling with words for nearly 40 years, so I lost my ability to see the physical world with my eyes. Or, at least I think so. When my eyes, my ears or my hands perceive something, they do it automatically. So, on paper I can see the street that I walked along, thanks to the words. But I’m not a person who stays away from streets and people; because of the flow of my life I’ve always been among them. For example, I worked as a bailiff for 23 years.
I become the slave of my characters, I set them totally free. No other way is possible, because the art of writing a novel can’t be realised within the limits of the mind.
What kind of relationship do you have with the characters in your works?
I’m not an author who controls his or her characters. I sometimes control them but I never take them prisoner. For this reason, many of my novels have transformed into something else – they’ve changed direction as a result of a character imposing her or himself. Most of all I become the slave of my characters, I set them totally free. No other way is possible, because the art of writing a novel can’t be realised within the limits of the mind. You can produce a table, a machine or a shoe thanks to the limits of your mind. But literature is something you produce by starting with your intelligence and then following your intuition. So the novels are much more intelligent than their authors.
You have been described as “a Kafka who emerged from the Orient, enriched by the literary acquisitions of Islamic mysticism” Is Kafka an author who has influenced you?
Kafka tops the list of my favourite authors, I see him as one of my relatives. Sometimes I joke that Kafka is my cousin! Maybe there’s an affinity between our perceptions of life and the world, but my literary style doesn’t resemble that of Kafka. His language is a kind of “telegraphese”. Anyway, this comparison doesn’t please me, but it doesn’t bother me either. It’s a totally neutral situation. Maybe this Kafka comparison is a result of a necessity that leads us to define one thing by comparing it to another. I want to emphasise that I’ve never thought of writing like Kafka. It would be comic, and also tragic, for an author to write just like Kafka. One Kafka is enough for our world.
I want to hear your ideas about the literary world of today. Do you think that in Turkey, and in the world, literary works are becoming identical?
Of course, very good books are being written. But we can talk about an “identicalness”. We live in a century of speed because of developing technology, and this enormous speed makes everything much lighter. Because of the rapid tempo of our lives today, greetings, loves, dinners, conversations – anything you can think of – don’t have the weight that they had 20 years ago. Everything is so fast, and everything gets lighter in proportion to its speed. This speed creates the identicalness in some sense. At the same time, the speed of our century brings an inherent aphorismic style to literature – which is the real disease of literature, in my opinion. As I’ve said before, literature should intervene in the speed of time.
Finally, in your opinion, is writing a political act – or should it be?
For me, to write is to intervene with life and time, so it’s political by its nature. When we speak of “political texts”, we think of texts that shout bold slogans, or have fully political characters. But in my opinion, these are not the criteria that make a text “political”. A text doesn’t become political when it deals with actual political problems, perpetuates the logic of an ideology or constructs itself according to the characteristics of an ideology: true and pure literature is always political. I mean, all Kafka’s works are political – his story A Country Doctor or another of his stories, The Bucket Rider.
We live in a century of speed because of developing technology, and this enormous speed makes everything much lighter.
Edited by Katie Jackson and Helen Southcott.