In spite of Turkey's claims to being a Muslim nation with the values and freedom befitting a European democracy, the truth is that the Turkish state has grown increasingly intolerant of dissent in any form. In 2006, Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk was charged with "insulting Turkishness" for referring to the 1915 Turkish genocide of Armenians.
It is in this suspect climate that Maureen Freely, Pamuk's English translator, sets her novel Enlightenment. The story begins with the arrival of Jeannie Wakefield in Istanbul. The daughter of a CIA agent, Jeannie joins a group of left-wing students out of youthful curiosity and falls in love with Sinan, a charismatic young man. Then one of the group is identified as a spy of the secret police. He is chopped up and his body thrown into the Bosporus.
This has devastating consequences for the group, most of whom are arrested and tortured by the secret police. Jeannie, however, manages to escape to America. She returns many years later and reignites her love with Sinan, resulting in marriage and the birth of a child.
But this is only the beginning of fresh trouble. After 9/11, Sinan's left-wing past returns to haunt him. A slew of disappearances follow, and the web of intrigue gets deeper. What role did Jeannie's father play in getting Sinan into trouble? Is Jeannie a CIA informant or just another victim of the state's repression machine? As the book draws to a nail-biting finish, ties of love and family provide obscure pointers to political affiliations and the machinations of statecraft.
If anything, the book gets too complex in trying to connect its many strands. However, Enlightenment is an important work. At a time when the European Union is seriously considering granting Turkey membership, the poor democratic and human rights record of the nation, which comes through in this book, should make European leaders wary.
Vikram Johri is a writer in New Delhi, India.