about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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A Turkish Dictionary
A Review of A Turkish Dictionary
by Andrew Wessels

Spencer Dew

The politics of language are particularly visible in the case of Turkish, a language founded on purge, on a discourse of cultural purity, a project of cultural invention and the construction of a nation-state entangled in currents of colonialism and a fetishization of the West’s model of civilization, predicated on a parallel fetishization of the East as somehow lesser. Ataturk demanded men swap the fez for the top hat, women remove the veil, and language switch from an Arabic to a Latin script—changing the direction of reading and writing. In Turkey, language becomes a tool of revolution, so much so that the speech which inaugurated the Turkish Republic is “impenetrable to contemporary Turks, who rely on a series of translations (1964, 1986, 1995) to modernize its language, return it to understandability.”

This ambitious, richly rewarding book—an investigation into Turkish history, a consideration of the politics of language, a flâneur’s account of the way the past occupies the present, a philosophical examination into language, and a series of formal experiments with language—begins and ends with acts of waking, first to a song or a memory of a song, finally in advance of the call to prayer and as a prelude to our narrator’s own, unique prayer, a prayer to self. Much of the book revolves around clashing epistemologies: one of perception and experience, the other of language; one personal, like the concluding prayer, the other social and given, like the phrases broadcast from the minaret and echoing across the pre-dawn city. On the one hand, our narrator says “I begin with what I see to come / to what I know,” yet on the other hand we know, from this book, that five years after Ataturk’s speech announcing the creation of the new Turkish nation, the Turkish Language Institute was founded “to cleanse the Ottoman language, to create an official Turkish language purged of borrowed words, of grammar, of Arabic script, of Ottoman heritage.” What to make of the claim to direct knowledge through personal experience within a world where “Hundreds of words become alien, then cease”? In what is such knowledge contained, and how communicated?

Wessels tracks the change of specific terms, gives us a page in (what to me, at least, was indecipherable) Turkish, and walks us through various forms of mediation, from the level of grammar (a remarkable sort of reverse vivisection, like breathing life into a diagramed sentence such that the simplest level of sentence—a bird flies—expands and takes flight) to the mediation of commentary (outside the Grand Bazar we examine five versions of Ataturk’s famous speech, “each edition larger and longer than the last . . . each more different than the last” as notations, explanations, and etymology bury the “original word”) and even the image (including the moving, simultaneously broadcast image, which is what one sees of Ataturk’s tomb when one visits Ataturk’s tomb, the entrance blocked by a television, its screen playing “a live feed of the interior of the tomb, the camera’s lens rotating to show the marble in the floor and the gold mosaic sunburst on the ceiling. I must accept the image on the screen” because that image, like words coined by the Turkish Language Institute, is that which is given by those in authority, by the state.

The ways that word choice matters is here given concrete examples alongside engagement with Wittgenstein. Did Constantinople fall? Was it sacked, taken, liberated? And what of that word, here unwritten but nonetheless present, genocide—at once descriptive and legally performative, demanding response; a term as claim, predicated on information which, as Wessels notes, “degrades as time carries it forward, away from its source.” Word choice implies an, albeit sometimes invisible, authority who controls the selection. Here we hear Erdoğan, as filtered through the media, on why he ordered removed a nearly finished sculpture signifying reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian people. We hear of a past in which blood flows “like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm, and the corpses of Turks and Christians were thrown into the Dardanelles, where they floated out to sea like melons along a canal ” and we visit a memorial, by a bench, to the victims of a suicide bombing, which is itself little more than a flower pot full of rain water. And in a charming excursus, we’re given the story of one John Fust, an early printer, who tried to sell printed copies of the Bible “as if they were manuscripts, which means really written by hands,” to Parisians so shocked by the conformity of the texts that they accused him of sorcery, giving birth to the story of Faust.

The devil, indeed, is in the details, details spread before us here, that, will, in turn, lead to further contemplation on the politics and phenomenology of language, communication, on the role of each in shaping history, both as a revolutionary act and, as well, in the service of power. Language here emerges as both a pliable tool and a living force, equally amenable to oppression and resistance, existing always as an ongoing process in the present yet also always bearing traces—sometimes welcomed, sometimes repressed—of the past.

Official Andrew Wessels Web Site
Official 1913 Press Web Site

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