Usurping Words: Turkish Coup Literature

In Turkish history, secretive groups have taken a particular type of pleasure from staging coups. Authors of the Turkish language, meanwhile, have been taking a different, literary type of pleasure from writing about their attempts at usurping political power. During the Latin American boom of the 1960s and 1970s, writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa could see the fascination political power exerted over individuals who had no patience for the niceties of the status quo and representative democracies. For power-hungry generals, idealist advisors and greedy bureaucrats stationed in the upper echelons of the state apparatus, the seat of the president or prime minister often appears both incredibly close and maddeningly far away. It is these frustrations and often crushed hopes that good coup Turkish novels address.

There are five coups in Turkey’s recent history (the coup on May 27, 1960; the military memorandum on March 12, 1971; the coup on September 12, 1980; the military memorandum on February 28, 1997; the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016) and dozens of books exploring their legacy. Here I want to recommend three books, on the three coups that I find most intriguing.

Adalet Ağaoğlu, photo credit: Ara Güler
Adalet Ağaoğlu, photo credit: Ara Güler

Adalet Ağaoğlu’s A Wedding Night, the best Turkish novel about the March 12, 1971 memorandum, explores the aftermath of a planned coup that was forcefully crushed. On March 9 that year, a group of leftist-nationalists supporting the Nationalist Democratic Revolution, headed by Doğan Avcıoğlu, had planned to stage a coup against the right wing government of the day and establish a Baath-like regime in Turkey. Some of the high ranking military personnel had changed sides in the last minute; crushing the coup plotters, the Chief of Staff then issued a memorandum to the prime minister Demirel, asking him to “neutralize the current anarchical situation” and eventually forcing him out of power. Public figures with leftist reputations started getting arrested, some of them subjected to torture, many going underground and becoming more marginalized.

The events of A Wedding Night take place during a wedding and the text, composed in techniques resembling Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, renders those events through the consciousnesses of three characters, Ömer, Tezel and Aysel. As the characters get more drunk, the intensity of their recollections increases. The nihilism of the book and its characters make the subject matter, the struggles of the socialists, their failed coup attempt and the March 12 memorandum that followed, seem like acts devoid of meaning. Ağaoğlu’s harsh and wonderfully acute look at the psychologies of both the leftists and the status quo generals that ended up crushing them, is inimitable and a pleasure to read.


‘A Wedding Night’ has not been translated into English yet, but ‘Curfew’, a novel by Ağaoğlu focusing on the days leading to another coup, that of September 12, is. Again, the novel is set during a single night. The narrative has a human scale, rendering the tumultuous events before the September 12 coup from the perspectives of a cast of characters.

Orhan Pamuk, photo credit: Ara Güler
Orhan Pamuk, photo credit: Ara Güler

Snow by Orhan PamukA similar perspective —nonjudgemental, detached, philosophical— is to be found in Orhan Pamuk’s 2002 novel Snow. The story of a poet’s visit to the eastern Anatolian city of Kars, that novel features a coup attempt staged by a theatrical troupe, who joyfully turn fiction into reality while attacking citizens of the city from the stage with guns and bombs.

Pamuk’s fictional uprising references a coup that was almost invisible to foreign eyes — the so called post-modern coup of February 28, 1997. On that day, Turkish generals ousted the Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan and imposed a set of principles, ostensibly to defend secularism. For secularists, this created a great dilemma in between defending parliamentarian democracy and secular principles. In Snow Pamuk’s characters struggle, too, and the author’s sustained impartiality and postmodern interventions make the novel a modern classic.

The novel of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt is yet to be written. Perhaps someone is writing it today. The undemocratic struggle for usurping power is a continuous theme here, one that will destroy more lives while giving birth to more books.

English-language Bibliographic Information:


Publisher: University of Texas Press

Publication Date: 1997

ISBN: 978-0292704794



Publisher: Vintage

Publication Date: 2005

425 pages

ISBN: 978-0375706868

Kaya Genç

-By Kaya Genç

Kaya Genç is an essayist from Istanbul. He is the author of Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey.” Follow him on Twitter @kayagenc









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