One of the great pleasures to be obtained from reading crime fiction is that most crime writers are acutely aware of both the geography and the mood of the communities that they write about. I won’t claim that there is such a thing as national character – I know that I shall immediately be shot down in flames if I even hint at it – but I’m certain that the massive popularity that Scandinavian crime writers have achieved owes a significant debt to the ambience of their work: the dark nights and cold days that they evoke, which in turn inspire brooding and melancholy characters who seem determined always to spot the worm in the bud, despite the consummate beauty of their surroundings. Similarly, the novels of Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin, which are set in Italy, skilfully succeed in communicating the rich cultural heritage of that country.
No-one, however, captures the essence or psyche of a country better than Barbara Nadel. Perhaps I should say city, rather than country, as all of her novels that I’ve read have been set in Istanbul. With apparent ease, she captures the contradictions of a city that has always looked both East and West: its exoticism and squalor; the brutality of some of its people and the sophisticated philosophical outlook of others; the thrusting modernity that jostles but does not oust more ancient superstitions. Other writers have written eloquently about this city, especially Orhan Pamuk, whose Nobel prize-winning work, so exquisitely wrought, seems to derive its depth from these very contradictions; yet, in my opinion, no-one, not even Pamuk, surpasses Nadel’s descriptions of Istanbul’s mean streets and boisterous crowds when she is writing at her best.
I’ve read three or four of her books now. I particularly admire her depiction of her world-weary but wise and humorous detective, Çetin Ikmen, who is beleaguered not only by the absurdities of red tape and the inefficiency and bigotry of his colleagues at work, but also by his large, unruly and ever-growing extended family at home. The latter is presided over by his ebullient and chaotic, much less well-educated wife, Fatma.
Harem is a particularly accomplished novel, because it examines issues of profound significance in Western countries through the filter of setting them in Istanbul. This not only makes it easier for the Western European reader to read about them, but also points up the dual thinking still prevalent in almost all countries by presenting it as a peculiarly Turkish phenomenon. This provokes the immediate response: ‘That couldn’t happen here!’, followed soon afterwards by: ‘Or could it?’ The original crimes committed in Harem are rape and the exploitation of women, leading in some instances to murder. The first of the murder victims is Hatice, a friend of Ikmen’s teenage daughter Hulya. Nadel’s account of Ikmen’s boss’s reluctance to pursue the girl’s murderers and bring them to justice because she evidently was not a virgin before they attacked her is particularly poignant. We might try to flatter ourselves that such an attitude could not prevail in our country, were it not that only in the last few days a British barrister has described a thirteen-year-old girl against whom sexual offences were committed as ‘predatory’. Nor does Nadel pull her punches when it comes to describing the perpetrators of rape. Hatice had unwittingly become involved with a group of people practising organised depravity, but her case is mirrored by one even closer to home for Ikmen, that of the abusive relationship that exists between two of his own police officers. As one would expect from a writer of Nadel’s talent, the moral conclusions that she draws are complex, but she is quite clear that women should never suffer from sexual abuse, whatever their personal moral code. This message may seem obvious, yet it is one that societies everywhere seem to be taking a long time to digest. Harem makes a very valuable contribution to the debate.
Of the other characters, several old friends feature in this novel. My particular favourite is Mehmet Suleyman, Ikmen’s disdainfully aristocratic colleague, who in this book finds himself less able than usual to sail, cosseted and immaculate, through his life, as if the teeming, grubby throng of humanity that it is his job to police does not really exist. Suleyman’s volatile Irish wife is suffering from post-natal depression and he has to run the gauntlet of her tantrums and her misery. And then there is Fatma, impossible but lovable, weaving her idiosyncratic magic on her weary but essentially adoring husband.
I wholeheartedly recommend Harem. If you’re new to Barbara Nadel, you won’t lose anything by starting with this book, as, despite being one of a series, it stands completely on its own, as such novels should. However, I’m certain that, if you do read Harem first, it will make you also want to sample some of the others.
A physics professor from the University of Cambridge has objected to a sexually-explicit passage from Ovid’s Amores that was set as part of this year’s Cambridge OCR Board AS-level paper (the candidates sitting the exam will therefore mostly have been 16 or 17). Apparently, he thinks that the piece was unsuitable for students of this age, because the examination rubric states that ‘candidates should be able to … produce personal responses to Latin literature, showing an understanding of the Latin text’.
As an aside, I’d be prepared to hazard a guess that at least some of the examinees were not as innocent as the professor supposes. However, I do not need to speculate on how knowledgeable they may have been on the subject of the piece – an adulterous liaison between the poet and a married woman – because that is not the issue. If it were, then examinations would also have to exclude literary works that refer to all crimes, including murder, and all works set either in the past or in foreign countries unknown to the candidates. That would rule out the whole of Shakespeare, the whole of Jane Austen and most modern masterpieces. Surely the point of great literature is that it has the power to evoke an imaginative response in the reader that transcends his or her actual experiences. It achieves a fusion between art and life that yet maintains intact the distinction between the two. As Orhan Pamuk puts it so eloquently in The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist, “We dream assuming dreams to be real; such is the definition of dreams. And so we read novels assuming them to be real – but somewhere in our mind we also know very well that our assumption is false.”
What is depressing about the good professor’s comments, however, is not their patent absurdity (he is a professor of Physics, after all, not of Literature), but the fact that they signal a deadening retrogressive trend that is in danger of spreading beyond the confines of the classroom. I was a schoolgirl during the tail end of a period when some school texts still in circulation were described as ‘abridged’ or even ‘expurgated’: for example, my rather old-fashioned grammar school still had many sets of the Warwick Shakespeares. They had been relieved of all scenes of a sexual nature and any words that could be construed as ‘blasphemous’. However, by then, these texts were still in use for reasons of economy, rather than to preserve the pupils’ innocence. When we came to the examinations, we were expected to have read the full-fat versions. Teachers advised us to refer to these in the Collected Works, or sometimes reproduced the excised passages on separate cyclostyled sheets of paper.
To my knowledge, the Latin texts that we studied had never been subjected to the same cleansing process: my Latin ‘A’ Level syllabus included the original works by Juvenal and Catullus – much racier than Ovid – as well as Ovid himself. I cannot remember having had any difficulty in understanding them or of their having caused offence or difficulty in the classroom. What I do recall is how fresh and original they still seemed, two millennia after they were first published, and the brilliance of the teacher who helped us to appreciate them.
I’m delighted that Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, has robustly defended the choice of excerpt in the Latin exam paper, because I’d hate us to slide backwards into a kind of dark age of political correctness in literature. Today we are scornful of Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear, in which Cordelia marries Edgar and all the ‘good’ characters live happily ever after. We are positively amused by the efforts of Thomas Bowdler, who not only supervised the production of a ‘family edition’ of Shakespeare, but also considered that Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was too risqué for polite society, and ‘improved’ it accordingly. More recently, my generation was exasperated by Mary Whitehouse’s well-meaning but narrow-minded attempts to clean up television.
We flatter ourselves that we live in a more sophisticated age than Tate or Bowdler. Many of their contemporaries, in fact, looked askance at what they were trying to achieve, just as my generation ridiculed Mary Whitehouse. Yet fashions in morality and what is ‘acceptable’ often don’t progress in linear fashion, making the next more discerning than its predecessor. In the nineteenth century, English literature was propelled at first slowly, then ever more rapidly, from the exceptionally daring creativity of the Regency era to a decades-long period that celebrated anodyne writings in which sexuality had to be conveyed in the strange telegraphese of young girls’ blushes and young gentlemen riding hard to hounds to quell their natural yearnings. Alternatively, these characters just faded away, blissful in the knowledge that their virtue had not been compromised. Woe betide the ‘fallen woman’, whose plight was not recognised until the end of the century, when Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Ubervilles.
When I was at school, it was a commonly-held belief that Physics was a finite subject: that mankind had ‘cracked’ it and had discovered all that there was to it. I know very little indeed about science, but I have read that today Physics is an incredibly exciting as well as very complex subject, one which attracts the finest minds as scientists push back the boundaries of knowledge all the time. I both respect and am in awe of them. I would suggest that they have at least one thing in common with those who choose to make literature their life’s work: they build on the creativity of the generations that preceded them. As far as I know, there is no expurgated version of Newton or Einstein: the only limitations placed on their students concern the latters’ capacity for understanding. The same restriction, and this restriction only, should apply to those who study Shakespeare, Catullus, Juvenal – and Ovid.