Turkish writer Burhan Sonmez’s Istanbul Istanbul is about four prisoners who are held without trial and tortured deep in the bowels of the city. Locked away in a windowless cell, they are routinely dragged away along a narrow corridor, past an iron gate to where a world of endless torments await.
When the guards see fit to return them to captivity more dead than alive, they pick up the pieces of a broken body with the help of a marginally more resilient spirit and their cellmates to live out another day to the best of their abilities. A chilling detail is tossed in almost as an aside—in the cell opposite a woman is being held and her gender does not exclude her from the same brutal treatment meted out to the opposite sex.
Yet Istanbul Istanbul is about none of these things simply because it refuses to dwell at length on the torture, pain and suffering or the gritty, stomach-turning nature of these characters’ misfortune and spares us the graphic details. Instead, the four men choose to distance themselves from the unspeakable horrors they are being forced to endure and wile away the time by telling each other stories, retreating further and deeper into an imaginary realm until the immediacy of their situation acquires dreamlike contours. The reader is drawn in as well and the effect is disembodied and disconcerting to say the least.
The stories themselves inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio The Decameron are varied. Some are naughty such as the tale of two nuns who discover a certain prosaic truth about exactly how fast a woman with her skirt up and a man with his pants down can run. Another involves a fantastical man—eating wolves and some are downright bawdy including the one with a randy soldier and the sexcapade of a runaway princess. These are funny, thought-provoking, bland or intensely philosophical.
These stories are not revelatory of their narrator’s background or circumstances that led to their current predicament. Early on, the prisoners warn a newcomer not to reveal any incriminatory evidence or reveal details about himself. As veterans of ill-treatment they are aware that nothing good can come from spilling their guts.
Despite the best efforts and extreme measures taken by their tormentors, the victims refuse to part with their secrets. The readers are treated roughly the same way. While allowed a free pass into the fantasies conjured by their coping mechanisms, the protagonists hold on to the best part of themselves which is locked away deep inside leaving the onlookers out in the cold. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends entirely on personal perspective.