THE DIRTY UNDERBELLY OF ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT CITIES: Elaine Fowler Palencia on Enlightenment by Maureen Freely


Maureen Freely, Enlightenment, Overlook Press

Like a radioactive matryoshka doll, Maureen Freely’s latest novel rises out of the Cold War history of Turkey, glowing with lethal secrets nested one inside another. To read it is to open the largest doll, then the smaller doll hidden inside it, and so on, in a search for the shape of truth.

The combination of narrative voices manifests this layered quality. Much of the novel is addressed to one Mary Ann, who works for an organization called the Center for Democratic Change in Washington. The author of the narrative is a journalist who calls herself only “M.” Mary Ann, it is hoped, will be a safe repository for M’s story. M was part of the American colony in Istanbul from 1960 to 1970, from ages 8 to 18, and attended Robert College, an elite private school. Her narrative concerns the political activities of several classmates in the 1970s and the tangled aftermath. M was engaged to classmate Sinan, a young man from a Turkish diplomatic family. When she returned to the States for college, she was replaced in Sinan’s affections by Jeannie Wakefield, the daughter of CIA operative William Wakefield. In 2005, Jeannie seeks out M and asks her to publicize the arrest and incarceration in Guantánamo of Sinan, now Jeannie’s husband, and the taking into custody of their five-year-old son. Sinan was arrested trying to bring his film My Cold War to the States for a lecture tour. Then Jeannie herself disappears.

When M reluctantly travels to Istanbul to investigate, she finds a 53-page letter for her, left on Jeannie’s computer, as well as diaries going back to Jeannie’s arrival in Turkey in 1970. M is welcomed to Jeannie’s father’s former house by Ismet, a shadowy governmental figure; so how private can Jeannie’s writings be?

M’s report both directly quotes and narrates passages from the letter and diaries as her investigation weaves back and forth in time. She contacts her old friends from Robert College, who were also friends of Jeannie and Sinan, and begins to excavate the history of student unrest at Robert College in the ‘70s, at the center of which was an elusive teacher and mentor, Dutch Harding.

Each important event and phrase appears to have multiple interpretations that change with the times. The word ‘enlightenment,’ for example, with its overtones of both 18th century rationalism and spiritual revelation, also refers to the Maoist student group operated by these friends; to a radio station; to the process of westernization in Turkey undertaken in order to overcome the corrupt Ottoman past, more recent Turkish corruption, and finally, political Islam and ultra-nationalism. The reader would also do well to keep in mind what the students asked themselves as they navigated Istanbul’s dangerous political waters, and which M asks herself as she turns a flashlight beam into murky corners of a past that is still present: Cui bono? Who benefits? The question becomes ever more crucial and difficult to answer. Everyone she meets has at least two faces. Is Jordan Frick friend or foe? Does William Wakefield act as a concerned father or from the motives of a soulless spook? Are the old student friends savvy and dedicated Maoists or well-to-do innocents seduced by agents provocateurs? Who, really, was Dutch Harding and who murdered him? What did the students actually do during the period of unrest that culminated in the 1980 coup? Are they still politically active? What about their parents, who hover knowingly in the background? Is there or isn’t there a powerful and secret deep state that really runs the country? As Freely noted in an article she wrote about Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk for The Guardian in 2006, merely to grow up in Istanbul is to struggle with dual eastern and western identities.

A professor at the University of Warwick, Freely has published articles on Turkish politics and is the English translator of Pamuk, who was indicted for the crime of “insulting Turkishness;” i.e., daring to mention to a reporter the “secret” of the Armenian genocide. Like M, Freely grew up in Istanbul and attended Robert College (as did Pamuk), where her father taught. The author of several novels and nonfiction books, she writes clear, visual prose that bathes the reader in the sights and feel of Istanbul. Her well-known wit flashes amid the dark mysteries of international politics-as-usual as, with a pen dipped in irony and long-simmering indignation, she probes the dirty underbelly of one of the world’s great cities, suspended as it is between east and west, like the “Pasha’s library,” William Wakefield’s CIA lookout post above the Bosphorus. This novel will appeal to fans of thrillers and mysteries, the general literary reader, and those particularly interested in Turkish politics. A surprise but satisfying ending awaits you.


3 responses to “THE DIRTY UNDERBELLY OF ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT CITIES: Elaine Fowler Palencia on Enlightenment by Maureen Freely

  1. Well, now! That’s a review! Elaine Fowler Palencia’s review so successfully “enlightens” the labyrinthine intrigues of this novel that I am moved to seek it out for a good read.