I received an advance review copy of this title from City Lights Publishing. The book was published in the original Turkish in 1973 and this English version has been translated by Fred Stark.
Zeberjet, the middle-aged man who is the main character of this novel, says a few times throughout his story that he is “neither dead nor alive.” Zeberjet works in the same hotel in which he was born and he rarely ventures outside of its walls. It’s not that he hasn’t wanted to go outside, but it seems more the case that he just hasn’t been interested in the outside world. His hotel, handed down to him through generations of his maternal family, provides him all of the social outlet that he needs.
Zeberjet’s hotel is in the Turkish town of Izmir near the railroad tracks and is not the highest end establishment in town. As a result he gets a wide array of guests that include visitors to the town, lovers having illicit affairs and prostitutes servicing their customers. During the period of time during which the book is set he describes a myriad of characters who all book a room at The Motherland Hotel. A married couple, who are local teachers, are staying at the hotel while they are looking for a permanent residence; a retired officer also stays for a week and sits in the hotel lobby reading for most of the day. But the most intriguing guest, from Zeberjet’s point-of-view, is a beautiful woman who arrives on the train from Ankara and is visiting relatives in the local town. There is an aura about this woman that absolutely captivates Zeberjet and he becomes obsessed with thoughts of her. She has promised to return in a week for another stay and he waits every day in eager anticipation of her return.
Zeberjet’s days at the hotel are very routine: he wakes up at the same time, he eats his breakfast and wakes up the charwoman who cleans the hotel. He sits at the front desk most of the day waiting for guests to check in and in the evening he pays a little visit to the charwoman for some sexual pleasure. Zeberjet is a man who adheres to the rigid schedule around which he has built his life but the appearance of the woman from Ankara completely throws him off balance. The author slowly builds suspense in the narrative by making Zeberjet’s existential crisis begin in small and subtle ways. He stops his nocturnal visits to the charwoman and he ventures out of the hotel to visit the local tailor where he buys a new outfit.
The tension builds further in the narrative when Zeberjet starts spending hours away from the hotel which he closes for long periods of time. It is as if he discovers that closing himself up in that hotel for all of those years has not allowed him to live his life to the fullest and he is trying to make up for it. He eats meals out, starts drinking, goes to a cock fight, and meets a young man with whom he sees a movie. The contact that he has with the woman from Ankara, even though it was the briefest of encounters, is the catalyst that pushes him out into the world where he seeks out a different life that is far removed from his usual routines.
But Zeberjet doesn’t just look for new adventures when he leave the hotel, he also slowly begins to destroy his previous way of life. He begins dismantling his former self at first by no longer accepting guests at the hotel. The culminating and disturbing scene in which he further attempts to separate himself from his life is destructive and violent. As Zeberjet descends into madness, he narrates the stories of his family which reach back a few generations. His family history, which includes the hotel, has a deep and strong hold on him and in the end he feels he can only take desperate measures to finally free himself from his past.
The setting of a hotel is a favorite of authors and Baum’s Grand Hotel comes to mind. But Atilgan uses this setting in an unusual way and makes the proprietor the focus of the narrative instead of the guests. Although this book was first published in 1973 it is still relevant as a chilling psychological study of one man whose existential crisis brings him to the point of violence and madness.
About the Author:
Atılgan is considered as one of the pioneers of the modern Turkish novel. His novels had a psychological style, digging into themes such as loneliness, questioning, meaning of life.
Atılgan finished middle school in Manisa, then high school in Balıkesir. He graduated in Turkish language and literature from İstanbul University. He finished his thesis titled Tokatlı Kani: Sanat, şahsiyet ve psikoloji under supervision of Nihat Tarlan. Atılgan then began teaching literature at Maltepe Askeri Lisesi in Akşehir. In 1946, he settled down at a village named Hacırahmanlı near Manisa where he took up writing. His novel Aylak Adam was published in 1959 which dealt with psychological themes such as loneliness, scope and possibility of love, meaning of life, seeking and obsession. This was followed in 1973 by Anayurt Oteli, which narrated the life of a hotel doorkeeper (named Zebercet) in an Anatolian town, with deep psychological examinations and touching themes such as sexuality and obsession. It gained further fame with a film based on the novel. In 1976, he began working in İstanbul as an editor and translator. With his wife Serpil he had a son in 1979 named Mehmet.
Atılgan died of a heart attack in 1989 while in the middle of writing a novel titled Canistan.