Sebnem_Isiguzel_Venus_Turkish_2013Şebnem İşigüzel

Venus greets the reader in Istanbul in the year 1908. The novel relays both a family history and a life story. As one of its protagonists says: you must observe the past in order to understand the present. That is why the novel opens on 1908 when the political climate was similar to that of present-day Turkey. However, the vividness of the novel is such that it goes back as far as the year 1589. After all, this is a family history!

The story begins between the east and the west, with a baby being born (or failing to be born) on a sandal in the middle of the Bosphorus. With a father disappointed that the baby is a girl and a mother who dies in childbirth. The baby itself is the narrator of the story.

 These are years that the populations of the entire world are migrating elsewhere. First the reader follows the story of the aforementioned Albanian family and their arrival in Istanbul in 1894. The father disappointed by having a daughter has first sent his sisters off to England rather than Istanbul “by accident”. Soon after, he set out to Istanbul with his rich, young and beautiful wife. His wife’s maid Nergis also accompanies them.

They have many fights throughout their eventful journey beginning on the shores of the Adriatic. Their last fight, in Edirne, culminates in a duel. The newlywed bride is shot by her husband. Luckily the palace doctor, on a hunting expedition in Edirne, treats her and saves her life. When they finally set foot in Istanbul, the biggest earthquake of Istanbul’s history occurs.

Such are the parents of the novel’s narrator.

Meanwhile one of the sisters “accidentally” sent to England comes to Istanbul and tracks down her lying brother.

That is how the motherless baby comes to be raised by the maid Nergis and Aunt Şekina. The father, on the other hand, continues to conduct clandestine and shady business throughout the novel. This offbeat family resides in a farm with one of the best views of Istanbul. Thanks to the assurance of money, Aunt Şekina lives her life exactly the way she wishes to. In an Istanbul where there is not a smidgen of hope for women’s freedom, she is a strong and unforgettable character who even dresses up as a man when the circumstances require it.

This aloof free spirit eventually falls in love with an Austrian Orientalist who is passing through Istanbul. A famous Ottoman pasha is also among her lovers. Şekina has a colorful life. She is a passionate woman who enjoys her sexuality. In time, a friendship develops between Şekina and Nergis that surpasses a standard slave-master relationship. There is a strong sense of solidarity between the two women. It is between these two women that the baby born on the Bosphorus spends the first part of her life.

Nergis, the family’s esteemed servant, leads a charmed life. To listen to what she has to say, you might think she had been in this world for three centuries like Orlando. Nergis’s story begins with being hunted and castrated by slave hunters in Egypt. She was then brought to the Palace in Istanbul. Nergis tells the reader extraordinary stories about life in the Palace and the Harem, from the organ given as a gift by the Queen of England to the day she was thrown out of the Palace on a day the Bosphorus had frozen over.

The baby born in 1908 grows up among these colorful women and their unparalleled stories. In 1915 she witnesses the Armenian intelligentsia of Istanbul rounded up and driven out of the city. Then she learns of how they were executed by gunfire in the middle of the steppes. She tells of the threats she received as a girl sent to school during those years. She relays the years of World War I when she was doused in ointment so she wouldn’t catch lice.

Everyone goes after her own destiny. To this end, Şekina heads out to London in 1938. She has lost her mother and sisters to a disease in London, where their brother accidentally sent them. The London chapter in which the past is reminisced about also reveals secrets about Şekina’s girlhood.

Even those who think themselves immortal in this intriguing story eventually must die. Our protagonist, who loses first his father and then her Aunt Şekina, ultimately buries Nergis. She is now an adult woman. An unhappy woman in the grip of an unhappy marriage.

After her warm descriptions of her girlhood and youth, she speaks very little about her unhappy marriage and awful husband. She does not wish to speak of bad things. She has had two sons from this marriage. She relays the sandal trips she takes with her sons with great enthusiasm. As well as her extramarital affair!

As much as our protagonist takes pains to console herself, her husband’s misdeeds eventually become unbearable.

Though brought up by two strong women, she is ultimately defeated. One night she has a breakdown. She imagines that she has killed her children and jumps into the well in the garden. Once she is rescued, she is taken to the insane asylum.

World War II is long underway. The asylum in Istanbul is extremely crowded and terrifying. Our protagonist is at the last stop of her life. One day she escapes from the asylum where she is being held against her will. In breathtaking narration, she steals a fisherman’s sandal and heads to the summerhouse where she thinks she killed her sons. Seeing that her sons are alive is the last joyful moment she has in her life.

Our protagonist is taken back to the asylum. Due to the war, the conditions at the hospital have become even worse. It is said that during those years, “almost half of Istanbul was insane.” Here things become more difficult when the doctor who helped her leaves. On a woeful tone, her family and life story ends.