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Ein Winter in Istanbul.

Fortnightly Fiction


From the opening chapter,

Translated from German by Marielle Sutherland.

 Three Waterways and a Shawl


FOR SOMEONE WHO came from the mountains, this city was hell. He paused as he thought this: he wanted to be accurate. It was a kind of purgatory, he corrected himself. He hesitated, and looked down at the wide-winged seagulls cutting across the view. Alright, so maybe it was the most beautiful of all possible purgatories. He folded his napkin.

With casual elegance, the waiter had placed a Turkish coffee on the white tablecloth, inclined his head a little, and was already turned away, heading off into other orbits through the cosmos of the glass dining room. Cla watched him go, not without envying the unquestionable assuredness of his manner. The man also had beautiful hands. Or could charm be deceptive?

Cla peered into the tulip-patterned cup with the black centre. It reminded him of a chocolate truffle. And, as if to enhance the sweetness of this impression even further, there lay next to it a little cube of thickened syrup with flecks of pistachio, a pink-and-green nugget coated in icing sugar.

He took a sip and popped the morsel in his mouth. It tasted bitter, with the slight sweetness of rose water. Beneath him lay the busy corridor between the New Mosque and the bus station. Strands of cars in variegated shades of grey, shot through with the yellow of taxis, were running across the asphalt, threaded as if by a lunatic hand; individual specks seemed to dart off intermittently; patterns of people bumped up against, merged into, one another. Ships swerved to avoid each other with a low droning sound that reminded Cla of cows, of grunting bulls. His head was spinning. He came from a village 1,800 metres up. Everyone there was someone, and people greeted each other whenever they crossed paths. Even from their cars.

He thought about the fact he had lied. Not lied. He just hadn’t been precise. That made a difference. If he’d been precise, he wouldn’t be sitting here. He took a second sip of coffee and peered into the slimy blackness left behind. (He could tip the little bit of sludge out onto the saucer and then – as he’d once watched someone doing at a neighbouring table – read his future off the residual streaks curving round the cup. That is, if he knew how.) But weren’t the lies that weren’t lies the worst kind? You got away with them so easily.

How huge these seagulls were, extending their curved beaks forwards like birds of prey. The grey-flecked feathers of their outstretched wings stayed smooth. They sailed as if slowing down time. His eyes followed their gliding spines.

He was sitting here on the fourth, fifth or sixth floor of a restaurant with a glass façade that was already feeding its guests a feast of a view. The Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and a hint of the Marmara Sea. Eminönü, the headland where the three waterways come together. The beginning of Byzantium. The centre of the old Constantinople.

He had lied and not lied. If he wanted to understand anything about the events that had happened here nearly 600 years ago, he had to come here! Touch the old stones. Smell the city. Hear it. And yes, taste it too. Not everything can be grasped by reading books. He wanted to become a witness again, consider the spaces seriously, in all humility. The Byzantine churches, the city walls, the sea walls, forts, trading houses, the derelict Sufi cloisters. And also the spaces that no human hand had devised: the hills, the waters, the skies over the waters. Time and space were in conflict with one another. In the epoch of acceleration, time was considered the victor. But was the past really over? Weren’t seas, shores, clouds, the light on the Bosphorus still speaking, beyond all transience, of what it was like here? 600 years is a long time. And the blink of an eye.

And yet, he hadn’t come here for the purposes of research, of reliving the past. He had to admit this to himself, at least. He was conscientious enough to do some work here, of course. After all, he’d received a scholarship from the foundation of a private Swiss bank that promoted dialogue between the religions. This had given him the opportunity to spend one winter in Istanbul, including accommodation at a college in Tarabaya. Tarabaya was one of the outermost suburbs of the city, a few kilometres from the Black Sea. His room looked straight out onto the Bosphorus.

He was a grammar school teacher, German, religion and ethics, at an international school in the Engadin; a scholarship like this could be passed off as continual professional development. He’d been granted a three-month sabbatical.

He signalled to the waiter he was ready for the bill. The man was leaning against a pillar in his almost floor-length apron; like him, he’d been staring out of the front windows and was now turning back to the room.

And almost defencelessly, exposed as he was up here in this aquarium-like space, he felt how insecure a scholar he was. And how vague a lover, deceiving everyone.

The waiter had answered him with a nod and disappeared. He came back with a faux leather wallet, placed it on the table and moved off. Cla picked it up.

He was here because he’d reached the end of the road.

He looked at the bill, placed the money between the two covers, and snapped them shut. Was a ten per cent tip about right?

He was here because he’d reached the end of the road.

No, he didn’t want to exaggerate. People like him were never at the end of the road, because people like him had learned to keep going, even at the end of the road. Dramas weren’t his style.

He was tired, and a sea of doubts.

Far below him, the motion of the afternoon traffic was a vision at one remove, which made it more bearable. Marbles from the hand of a god, carelessly thrown down on a playing field.

He leaned back. He’d given up smoking years ago. But sometimes the craving for a cigarette came back unexpectedly. As if inhaling could make him lighter. And, startled, he found he was thinking of her, of her skin. Suddenly, she was close to him. Closer than she’d ever been when he’d held her slender body in his arms. And so the memory of her smell brought him back to the lie that wasn’t a lie. Just a hesitation, a wavering, an evasion.

And so a lie after all.

Angelika Overath is a journalist and writer-in-residence for the German section in Newcastle University’s School of Modern Language and at Queen Mary’s College, London. A list of publications by and about her appears in the catalogue Helveticat of the Swiss National Library. 

Marielle Sutherland is a freelance German-English translator. She has published a co-translation of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke with OUP, translations in the literary journals InTranslationAlchemy and No Man’s Land, and contributions in non-fiction books in the arts and humanities.

This is a brief extract from the first chapter of Angelika Overath, Ein Winter in Istanbul © 2018 Luchterhand Literaturverlag, München, in der Penguin Random House Verlagsgruppe GmbH. It appears in The Fortnighly Review by permission.

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