Book Review - The Lost Word by Oya Baydar

In 2005, Orhan Pamuk faced three years in prison after referring to the death of “30,000 Kurds” in Turkey’s military offensive against Kurdish separatists. Pamuk’s case was later dropped on a ‘technicality’. Last month another Turkish writer, Ragip Zarakolu, previously detained for speaking on Kurdish issues, was charged with ‘membership of an illegal organisation’.

It is therefore a bold move for Oya Baydar to use the Turkish-Kurdish conflict as the backdrop to her epic novel, brilliantly translated by Stephanie Ateş. Baydar has herself been persecuted for her writing and was forced into exile in the 1980s, returning to Turkey in 1992.

Her main character is a Turkish writer, Ömer Eren. Once imprisoned for his work, he now enjoys a comfortable existence as a best-selling author. Symbolically, his success and subsequent complacency have given him writer’s block. After helping a fugitive young Kurdish couple, he travels to east Turkey in an attempt to recover ‘his lost word’. There he encounters a beautiful and enigmatic chemist, Jiyan, and experiences for himself the hardship and fear of the region.

The Lost Word is told from the perspectives of four additional characters. Eren’s ambitious wife Elif, who dreams of winning the Woman Scientist of the Year award, their vulnerable son, Deniz, who seeks refuge from violence on a remote Norwegian island, and the Kurdish couple, Mahmut and Zelal, on the run from the Kurdish resistance and Zeyla’s family. Baydar covers a lot of ground – from terrorism to honour killings, the anger and intimidation on both sides, and the plight of ordinary people caught in the endless cycle of violence.

More than anything, The Lost Word is about the importance of having a voice. Eren has a voice but can’t find the right words. By contrast, the Kurdish people, forced to learn Turkish in schools and often displaced by military actions, have had both their language and culture suppressed. As Jiyan claims, in one of the more lyrical passages, “Our voices used to break loose from the plains, rise up to the mountain pastures and echo on the mountains. They used to mingle with the rivers, pass through the gorges, hit the rocky cliffs and return to the town.”

Baydar’s extraordinary book explores, from both sides, the nature of the armed conflict that continues in Turkey and eloquently demonstrates how violence can erupt wherever tyranny and fear coexist. The characters’ various journeys shape their perception of ‘otherness’. As Elif realises, “everyone is a foreigner in the world”. The ‘word’ also represents hope and compassion. Eren, in recognising that “if you lose the shame you feel for the suffering of the world and the people then you lose the essence of man”, regains his creativity.

Originally published in the Independent print edition 15 December 2011