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Orient Expressed

Nédim Gürsel


© J. Foley/OPALE

Nédim Gürsel








Hospitality is the order of the day, and the raki, a traditional Turkish brandy, is already on the table. Nédim Gürsel, Turkish writer of international renown, research director of comparative literature at CNRS in Paris and professor of Turkish language at the Institut des Langues Orientales (Inalco: Oriental Language Institute), treats us to a mesmerizing description of the ochre-colored steppes of Anatolia, the place where he grew up.
His past reads like a storybook, set in a far-away land. He recalls his grandfather, a romantic at heart who eloped with his sweetheart. There was of course the tragic railroad accident that took his father’s life, then only 38 years old. At the time, he was a French professor and Gürsel vividly remembers a postcard he had received, which was both stimulating and prophetic: “I am in Paris. This is the view from my hotel room.” It was the Place de la Sorbonne.
Paris. The name continues to haunt the young Gürsel, who quickly develops a passion for French literature, particularly Baudelaire, Flaubert, Camus, and Sartre. He enters the Galatasaray French high school in Istanbul where he obtains his baccalaureat in 1970. He is then granted a scholarship in Paris for a Masters degree in literature at the Sorbonne. The same one he had seen on the postcard. The city of his dreams lived up to his expectations: “Paris was everything that I had imagined. And even more,” Gürsel fondly remembers. In 1979, he defended a thesis in comparative literature on Louis Aragon and Nazim Hikmet, under the guidance of the highly acclaimed René Étiemble. But this also marked a change of direction, geographically speaking. “My university years in Paris made me aware of my gaps in Turkish literature, I wanted to get closer to my own culture.” He thus returned to Istanbul.
But in the blink of an eye, the coup d’état of 1980 sealed his destiny: His first two novels, “A Long Summer in Istanbul,” and “The First Woman,” translated into French and the recipients of numerous awards, were banned in Turkey for being offensive to the army and public morality. This meant exile for Gürsel, and the destination of choice was France, where, supported by René Étiemble and Louis Bazin, he joined CNRS in 1982. “This position let me escape the powers-that-be in my country. This liberty, this security, has left me with a sense of obligation. I now lead several lives: teacher-researcher and writer. I don’t know what would have become of me if I had not been able to do it all at the same time.”
This nomadic author is still very active–he has written some 30 award-winning novels and literary essays, some of which have been translated into about 15 languages. At the same time, he keeps a watchful eye on his field of research which is extending to the Balkans and Central Asia. “With the disintegration of the USSR and the emergence of Turkish-speaking regions like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Turkish literature now has greater reach than Turkey alone. Our team of anthropological, sociological, and historical researchers, associated with EHESS, is now larger.” He takes all this in stride, even in his adoptive country, France, where the highly controversial issue of Turkey joining the EU recalls his own situation: Somebody torn between two solitudes and two cultures, in an eternal quest for the link between the East and the West. He wishes that his country would be more appreciated. Like his compatriot Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Prize in literature, he represents the new growing generation of committed Turkish writers, some of whom have been forced into silence or exile.
Camille Lamotte

Contacts :

Nédim Gürsel, Inalco, Paris,


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