Guilt and Accountability in Turkish Author Hakan Günday's More
At what point can a person be held accountable for their crimes?
Hakan Günday’s impressive, thought-provoking More, winner of the 2015 Prix Médicis étranger and the 2011 Dünya Kitap Award, takes an unflinching look at guilt and accountability—or the lack thereof—in the twenty-first century. The story, translated from the Turkish by Zeynep Beler, plays out through the lens of a Turkish boy, who comes of age amidst some of the great crimes of our era.
Although the book is set among migrants, traffickers, lynch mobs, and corrupt politicians, it shouldn’t be read as social realism. Instead, More’s achievements are in pushing the reader to consider the nature of guilt, much like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, although without religious scaffolding.
When the book opens, nine-year-old Gaza has just taken his first job in human trafficking, as an assistant to his domineering father. The two live alone on a large property in a small Turkish town. Under the guise of moving fruits and vegetables, Gaza’s father receives shipments of humans and drives these people to the sea, either to a life of slavery or to a fresh start in a new country.
Before employing his son, Gaza’s father tells him a story that underpins the narrative. Two years before Gaza was born, his father was on a migrant boat that fell apart in a storm. All were pitched into the sea, trafficker and migrants alike. Gaza’s father swam until he found a man clinging to a buoy. Gaza’s father yanked away the buoy, and the man was carried away by a wave.
After telling this harsh story of survival, Gaza’s father asks his son what he would have done. Nine-year-old Gaza tentatively replies, “Maybe that buoy could’ve helped us both…” This is answered with a slap. Soon, Gaza is conditioned to the right answer: “I would’ve done the same as you, Dad.”
The prose here, as throughout, is ragged, sharp-edged, and makes frequent use of ellipses. There is no pretension to elegant sentences; these are not how Gaza expresses himself. Yet even where awkward, the writing remains compelling.
Just a year after Gaza joins his father, the boy is responsible for his first death: a twenty-six-year-old Afghani man named Cuma, or Friday. Part of Gaza’s job was to get up and turn on the truck’s air conditioner. We’re never sure whether Gaza simply forgot, or whether he didn’t feel like doing it.
Ironically, it is Cuma’s death—the one where Gaza is least responsible, at least in conventional terms—that haunts him the most. A jury would surely convict Gaza’s father in place of a ten-year-old. But is the boy responsible, a few years later, when he threatens a group of migrants and then rapes “the most beautiful girl in the world”? Is he responsible, at fifteen, when he buys surveillance equipment and, without his father’s knowledge, runs “experiments” on exhausted and frightened migrants as they wait for the next leg of their journey?
These sections are painful to read, although important to the questions Günday is posing about guilt.
Gaza is imprisoned once, when the local police constable decides to use him as a bargaining chip, and Gaza assumes the worst. As a strategy, he plans to throw his crimes on his father’s shoulders, imagining this will free him. “At this point I wouldn’t merely walk, I’d absolutely fly out of the courtroom on a pair of wings! I wouldn’t even have to say the rest! But if they wanted proof?”
If they wanted proof? As he sits in the cell, Gaza burns himself with cigarettes to furnish proof of his father’s abuse. Through this self-harm, the guilt is to be lifted off his shoulders and placed on his father’s. Yet can he expunge guilt by harming himself and blaming someone else?
Apparently not: Gaza is set free, and he chooses to stay at his father’s side. Meanwhile, his torture of migrants grows. It’s possible to see Gaza as a child, raised in an environment where he “didn’t know better.” But if Gaza isn’t held responsible, why should his father be? Didn’t he, too, live among people who thought that the migrants’ lives were disposable?
At this point, the novel abruptly shifts. The fruit-and-vegetable truck crashes. While his father dies instantly, Gaza is buried alive beneath the migrants’ bodies.
When Gaza is finally rescued, weak and near death, he is publicly hailed as a miracle. In private, the prosecutor makes him give evidence against his father, the town policeman, and the mayor. After this, there are no more migrants. Yet Gaza is free of neither crime nor guilt.
At the moment Gaza reaches adulthood, More’s question of responsibility shifts. Is he responsible for crimes if he is mentally unfit? Because of the trauma he’s undergone, he’s sent into a mental institution for a time. Is he responsible if he commits crimes as part of a group? For a while, to escape responsibility for his actions, Gaza does a Lynch Mob Tour of the world.
As Günday forces us further and further in considering Gaza’s guilt, he also forces us to consider our own. As in Notes from Underground, the narrator of More cuts himself off from humanity. And yet his questions are essential to twenty-first century humanity. Gaza muses:
“A person who witnessed a rape on the streets could be charged with complicity for not helping the victim. When societies displayed the same behavior, however, there was no charge, because it wasn’t even considered as a crime[.]”
Who is responsible for the bombings in Syria and Yemen? Gaza might ask. Who, if not each one of us?
In the end, Günday’s novel lets the reader off the hook a little, when Gaza is offered a chance at redemption. Instead of leaving the reader with blood on our hands, Gaza takes all of our crimes and suffers for them. Yet, in the end, the question remains: Of what are we guilty?