The Brige of the Golden Horn
“Since their beginning, stories have pretended to take place far away. Faraway and once-upon-a-time are code words for Here and Now.” When these words from John Berger’s introduction are applied to this moving novel by Turkish playwright and actress Emine Sevgi Ozdamar, they ring inordinately true. The Bridge of the Golden Horn opens with the most well-known plotline: Once upon a time there was a young girl who sought more out of life than she currently possessed. So she left home, traveled to a faraway land, and along the way encountered a myriad of obstacles, found herself in both silly and impossible situations, all of which taught her valuable lessons by the novel’s conclusion. The end. Yet in the case of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, this familiar narrative device takes the reader along on a surprising and wholly satisfying journey with a quirky and complicated narrator. This unnamed narrator is a sixteen-year-old girl who dreams of being an actress, and so she forsakes her native Istanbul for Berlin—lying about her age in order to obtain a job as a migrant worker in a factory—in the hopes that she’ll accumulate enough money to send herself to drama school. As is usually the case in such stories, all does not go according to plan, and the novel chronicles the four year span—beginning in 1966—during which the heroine acquaints herself with love, sex, communism, and foreign languages. So she says herself: “I wanted to learn German, and then rid myself of my diamond in order to become a good actress. Here [Istanbul] I would have to come home every evening and look in my parents’ eyes. Not in Germany.”
Written in a fluid stream-of-consciousness style, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s semi-autobiographical novel propels the reader through the narrative with its long chapters and quick pacing; it feels like you’re straddling a cantering horse, powerless to slow down. The novel’s tone forces the reader to feel what the narrator feels at any given moment, whether it be about her family, home, sexuality, politics, or theatrical aspirations. With its clipped and direct prose, the narrative pulls you in without being sentimental or melancholy: “Every cigarette we smoked that night showed us that we had made a mistake. We had run away from the herd and now we wept for the herd. This was Berlin. This Berlin had not existed for us yet. We had our hossel [sic], and the hossel was not Berlin.”
While Ozdamar’s lyrical writing technique contains shades of Postmodernists who have especially favored a stream of consciousness style (such as Joyce and Woolf), her writing is wholly her own:
Berlin had been like a street to me. As a child I had stayed in the street until midnight, in Berlin, I had found my street again. From Berlin I had returned to my parents’ house, but now it was like a hotel, I wanted to go back on the street again. On the ship the men took the newspapers down from their faces and looked at me. Every evening a shipful of people would come to see me on the stage as an actress. The men would fall in love with me. I suddenly realized that I was very curious about what these men who would fall in love with me would look like. I wanted to die onstage like Moliere, in the middle of the set. I saw myself onstage, other actors carried me in their arms, I bled from my mouth, died and left behind no children who had to weep after my death. The ship was just in the middle between Asian and European Istanbul. The actress came out of my body, she pushed a man and child in front of her and threw them into the Sea of Marmara. Then she came back and entered me again. When the ship reached the Asian side, I knew that I never ever wanted to get married. I could hardly wait to get home. Before I got on the bus, I called my mother. ‘I don’t want to marry, I want to go to drama school.’
In addition to being the author of The Bridge of the Golden Horn, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar has also written plays, and is a trained actress. With this experience, Ozdamar has clearly gained a masterful understanding of the nuances of language, and sheutilizes literary devices found in playwriting to push the novel’s plot towards its conclusion, a technique that works brilliantly throughout the entire novel.
At its core, though, The Bridge of the Golden Horn is a modern-day fairy tale. While few would consider 1966 “long ago”, or Istanbul and Berlin “a far away land” (in the traditional fairy-tale sense; both are pretty far away from where I sit in Phoenix), the novel contains a colorful cast of characters, heartbreaking and hilarious events, a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood, and all of this takes place in a dramatically shifting modern world – a densely wooded forest of life, iconic of a fairy tale. In his introduction, John Berger states, “perhaps story-tellers have always been listened to because they fill a lack.” Luckily for readers, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s profound, illuminating, and ultimately lovely novel, The Bridge of the Golden Horn is a powerful story that can fill in for whatever may be lacking.