Sins and Innocents by Burhan Sonmez
My encounter with Burhan Sonmez in Istanbul put me in touch with the radical underbelly of politics in Turkey. A former pupil of mine from the 1980s kindly furnished me with his name and contact details, but that was all the information I had when I arranged to meet Burhan outside a school on Siraselviler Street.
He quickly identified this man in cycling lycra, and he took me for a walk along the 3 km pedestrianised street that led up to Taksim Square. As we surveyed the skyline of the square, he told me of the regime’s attempts in 2013 to remove trees and demolish buildings, to be replaced by a huge mosque and shopping mall. The young people of Istanbul showed their displeasure by congregating on the square to prevent the bulldozers from removing the trees. The trees became hugely symbolic of the widespread opposition to the regime, and within a few days the numbers of demonstrators had risen to over 1 million. Among them was Burhan Sonmez.
Later, as we sat in a restaurant frequented by academics, dissidents and Burhan’s friends in the legal profession, I not only learned how to sip raki with my meze, but the story of Burhan’s past began to unfold. A former human rights lawyer, 18 years ago he was beaten up by the police and left for dead. He managed to get out of Turkey, and came to England for medical treatment and therapy, ending up in Cambridge for a period of 10 years.
When he returned to Turkey, he devoted his attention to full-time writing and, with his second novel Sins and Innocents, he won the Sedat Simavi Literature Award, Turkey’s most prestigious literary award (on the level of our Man Booker prize in the UK).
A thinly veiled auto-biographical novel, the story is made up of a series of short vignettes, alternating their location between Brani Tawo’s past in Turkey, and the present in Cambridge, and his relationship with an Iranian exile called Feruzeh. Both characters from distant, but neighbouring countries, and both living as political exiles in a foreign country. Midst their shared trauma and deep nostalgia, their love grows against the background of Brani’s childhood memories, stories and songs.
When I discovered Burhan was to pay a visit to Cambridge in August, I jumped at the opportunity to invite him to Kimbolton, to spend an evening sharing his story and his writings with an audience of sympathetic listeners. Now that his writings are being translated into English, we are going to see much more from his pen filtering through to the English speaking world.