The stories of Murathan Mungan are open to various readings. His Stories of Confrontation (Cenk Hikayeleri) consist of short stories that contain a mix of traditional narrative forms - especially folk stories - as well as allusions to contemporary thought. Of the six stories in this book, four have the following titles: Ökkes and Cengaver, Kasÿm and Nasÿr, Binali and Temir, and Ensar and Civan. I refer to these stories as »and« tales. They are stories that describe the relationships, the fondness and hostility, the love and hate between two male characters.
The »and« relationship in these pieces evokes French thinker Emmanuel Levinas’ conceptualization of the self-and-other dichotomy. Levinas’ Totality and Infinity (1961) explores the differences between existence by oneself and existence with another. The desire of one’s »self« to gain dominance over the entire world, to experience the environment as the extension of one’s being opens the way to a totalitarian worldview. The realization of another’s existence, however, the focus on the »other« destroys this totalitarian »self.« The situation changes once it becomes evident that the »other« is a separate being and that the »self« is just another »other« in relation to this »self.« When the »self« becomes aware of the »other,« the »self« abandons the desire to dominate the world in an absolute way. The ego’s singular world is suddenly disrupted with the intercession of another’s face, another’s voice. In this way, a sense of responsibility and obligation begins to emerge through the encounter with the »other«.
By becoming aware of the »other,« the »self« is prevented from living by only satisfying its own wishes and rescues its selfhood from the self. As the »self« learns to exist for the »other,« the presence of the »other« destroys the totalitarian and self-centered world of the »self,« enabling it to be human. Levinas’ moral understanding rests precisely on this point: The disposition of the »self« toward the »other,« its being for the »other.« According to Levinas, this is the only way that one might attain God and infinity.
The moral »self,« the »self« that exists for the »other,« desires to act in line with the wishes of the »other« and to submit to its command. If this relationship takes the form of submission and resignation, the roles will have simply been reversed. That is, a »self« under the totalitarian control of an »other« replaces an »other« under the totalitarian control of a »self«. In this situation, the totalitarian relationship persists as always, the only difference being that the subject and object have changed places. As a result, the relationship of submission and/or domination becomes a state of conflict bearing enmity and hatred.
However, when the relationship occurs in the context of disposition toward, being for, and desiring the »other,« the dynamic changes completely. Since desire is insatiable it is an infinite feeling. The desire for the »other« intensifies as the impossibility of satisfying the wish for unison becomes evident. As this occurs, the difference and unattainability of the »other« becomes more apparent. For this reason, this type of relationship contains both affection and suffering.
If we interpret Murathan Mugan’s Binali and Temir and Ökkes and Cengaver stories through Levinas’ framework, these two relationships of hatred and affection become quite clear.
In Binali and Temir, Binali is a famous outlaw with such a reputation that he has become a legend among the people of the region. Temir, though only 15 years old, is a renowned shepherd who tends to the flocks of the surrounding villages and aghas (near-feudal landowners), keeping the sheep he leads through the mountains safe from wolves and birds of prey. In the mountains, Temir comes across Binali, who has been wounded in an ambush by a rival gang. Temir doesn’t recognize him. He carries the severely wounded Binali to the cave in which he lives and cares for him there. He tends to Binali’s wounds, feeds him, and nurses him to health. Two »selves,« as yet unable to withstand the existence of the »other,« have met:
»Temir didn’t understand why the delight he’d felt at first had fled so fast. As Binali returned to health, he seemed to sap half of Temir’s strength … A heavy, tacky air descended on the cave. For the first time a second person was living here and Temir didn’t know what he should do; for the first time he was living with another. The atmosphere was increasingly dense and thick. Binali examined his surroundings. He looked about with a sense of ownership. Temir’s sense of comfort had been destroyed completely …«
Temir is a youth who has grown accustomed to living alone and to heeding his own thoughts. He’s described as follows: »Shepherding was this boy’s work. What’s called ‘shepherding’ is nothing but a long sentence of slavery … day after day longing for another human face … an endless chain of days … these shepherds might know fifty words … and from lack of talking, they’ll forget those too … When this one was but a lad he’d dealt with all of this successfully. He’d gotten used to the mountains, the loneliness, and the magic of being alone. He was up to any challenge.« That is, Temir has grown accustomed to living alone, he hasn’t met his »other«.
Elsewhere, Temir is described as follows: »He’d never before in his life spent time with another …« When Temir, who is only used to living by himself, encounters Binali, the man he treats and nurses, he begins to feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, Binali is not a »self« that is easily accommodated - he’s insolent and proud. »When he was wounded and lifeless, it was as if everything was better. Binali behaved as if getting well and being content, and even, being rescued, nursed, brought to health by Temir were his most natural rights. He acted as if he had the very right to life. He acted as if he had a right to all of the world’s bounty. He was one of those who felt no sense of gratitude to anyone at all …«
After Binali learns Temir’s name, »How do you get by?« he asks. This question upsets Temir. »Didn’t you hear? When you asked a while ago I said my name is Temir, I’m a shepherd, there isn’t a soul who hasn’t heard of me, I’m known from pasture to meadow throughout this land …. And let me tell you something else. I don’t like the look in those eyes of yours one bit. You look at the entire world as if you owned it. I don’t like your look, not one bit.«
Afterward, Binali also introduces himself. When Temir hears Binali’s name, whose reputation he knows quite well, he is again troubled. »‘Was that why you didn’t recognize me?’ he said. »Because you’re Binali?« Binali’s »self« is also very significant. »In fact, when he said that his name was ‘Binali’ just now, he wanted to ensure a number of things – he wanted to evoke Temir’s fear and awe. He’d always treated the world, the mountains and people as if they were his property. These mountains and this world were things that he deserved; he’d earned the entire world through the right of his own might. He couldn’t live or be without sensing the boundless and infinite strength of domination … He’d taken up his name like girding a sword.«
»He’d come under the spell of giving commands. To all places, he’d become accustomed to extending his rule, which had been established for the glory of domination. Since he knew no other way to act, he’d always treated the person next to him the same way; whereas Temir had never been in another’s company. Now they are face-to-face in this dark cave.« Each of these two »selves« has not accepted the existence of the »other« and the confrontation of these two »selves« who have never acknowledged anyone else promises violence.
Angered by Binali’s hubris, Temir takes advantage of the fact that Binali cannot stand from where he lays recovering from his wounds, and first pisses on his weapon. This infuriates Binali. For the first time, as he lay wounded and in need, he is forced to acknowledge the presence of an »other«. »He sensed with a sharp pain that he couldn’t move from the bed in which he lay immobilized. Upon him, he felt the damnable weight of dependence and submission … Binali stared at Temir with bloodshot eyes as if he were going to tear him apart. Temir, in turn, tossed the weapon away. The battle had begun.«
»For Binali, Temir had begun to exist only when pissing on his weapon … It was at that moment that he acknowledged him. It was then that he understood that Temir was not one of those working under his command, but another type of person, a man all his own. Whenever someone resisted him, whenever someone rebelled, only then did he acknowledge that person … Only when they became his enemies did people exist for Binali. That was why he had fled to the mountains. That was why he was an outlaw.«
Following this, a merciless conflict begins among them. First Temir torments Binali by refusing to care for his wounds, by not feeding him, by making Binali beg for even a bowl of water. »Won’t you kiss my hands and feet?«, »I will, my lord.«, »Won’t you beg and grovel like the dogs at my door?«, »I will, my lord.«, »Tell me then, you murderer to the cruel and champion of the poor: Who’s the greatest of them all in these mountains, Binali or Temir?«, »Temir, my lord.«, »If Temir wanted couldn’t he just lay out Binali’s rotting carcass?«, »He could, my lord.«, »All right then, dog, let’s see you take this bowl of milk and this piece of bread.«, »I am a dog, my lord.«
It is because Binali – capable of making everyone tremble in fear – is in need of help that he quietly succumbs to this degree of belittling ridicule. An immense amount of anger accumulates within him. One day, when Temir is not in the cave, members of Binali’s gang find and rescue him. Binali, who recovers fully a short while later, bent on revenge, begins to pursue Temir. He captures him, beats him violently, and tortures him into submission to make him beg – just as Temir had done earlier. Temir resists, does not beg, and doesn’t let himself be belittled. As a result, he is subject to horrible torture. Binali practically tears him to pieces. Finally, Binali realizes that he won’t be able to make him beg and begins to pity Temir’s severely wounded state. »He looked after him for days. He cleaned his body, caressed it, applied salve, and healed his wounds. He cared for him like a father. They were now two people. For the first time Temir recognized and received affection.«
Finally they are able to be two individuals. They now share each other’s company. But this doesn’t last long because the togetherness of the two is only possible when one of them is beholden to the other. This relationship is based on submission and dominance; and is established when one of them takes the other under his absolute authority. Such a relationship is constituted by animosity and hatred. The two »selves« cannot exist together in equality.
For this reason, when Temir gets well and regains his strength the conflict between them begins anew. One day, Temir grabs Binali’s gun and confronts him; it is evident that he is incapable of accepting the »other«s being: »‘We are no longer two people,’« said Temir. ‘I’m on my own.’ And without saying anything more he pulled the trigger.« Afterward, Temir goes on to become as famous as Binali as an outlaw in that region. He becomes singular. The conflict between two »selves« that cannot recognize or accept the »other« can only be resolved through the elimination of one of them. They cannot exist together.
In the story Ökkes and Cengaver, however, a relationship opposite this is in evidence. It is a relationship of affection. Here, there is not only the acceptance of the presence of the »other,« there is affection toward him. There is a desire to turn toward the »other,« to try to think like him, and to identify with him.
Ökkes and Cengaver are two youths who have spent their childhoods together and are best friends. »They were the same height. Their faces were the same. Their eyes were the same. They were the same age. They were innocent, as innocent as could be. The crude laws of manhood had not yet darkened the festival in their eyes.« Now that they were 15, in keeping with the customs of their tribes, they had to prove their manhood as defined by tradition. According to the »crude laws of manhood« the youth chosen by an elder would be tied to a tree and would be beaten to the extreme by another youth selected for this task. On the next day, however, the young man who had administered the beating would be left to roam free in a mountainous area whose borders were marked. The beaten youth would then be sent to search for him. If he caught him, he could then beat him in kind. The other wouldn’t be able to fight back. This was the law of manhood. In the story, it is said: »Only strong wrists could hold the spear of the tribe upright.«
The elder selects Ökkes to be tied to the tree. In a clearing in the forest Ökkes is tied to one of three beech trees. Cengaver throws his first punch haphazardly. »He raised his head. Their eyes met. It was at that moment that sparks began to fly from Ökkes’ eyes. It was then the fire began to roar. Cengaver’s manhood remained suspended in mid-air. (His fist remained in mid-air.) His fingers loosened. Ökkes’ eyes made Jengaver forget custom, manhood, and everything else. What was reflected in Ökkes’ eyes wasn’t physical pain. Cengaver knew this best of all.«
»‘If only the elder had selected me Ökkes,’ Cengaver said. ‘If only he’d chosen me to be tied to the tree. Believe me, it’s easier for the one who’s tied to the tree. Ökkes, it’s much harder for me. I have to beat you. Even if my heart were branded, if my mind were to grapple with my heart, I still have to throw my punch in accordance with custom. Forgive me. My manhood is at stake’… Cengaver was crying. Imploring … ‘Please swear at me Ökkes. Curse my mother, my father, and my ancestors. Say whatever your tongue can stand, please say something Ökkes! Don’t leave me alone with my embarrassment … Say something …’« Ranting like this, for the sake of custom and of proving his manhood, he beat Ökkes in an appalling way.
»If it should happen that Ökkes can’t catch Cengaver, Cengaver will become twice the man. The man who both knows how to give a beating and to flee would be twice the man. And if tomorrow Ökkes can’t find Cengaver, he’ll have to bear twice the shame. ‘Ökkes my brother,’ said Cengaver, ‘my dear Ökkes, the shame of the executioner is harder to bear than the pain of the victim, this is what I want you to know. Forgive me my friend; I’m seeking shelter in your heart! You know that I adore you. Be sure of it, tomorrow you’ll catch me. You’ll catch me and lower me to the ground! I won’t be twice the man, Ökkes. One measure of manhood is quite enough for me!«
The next day, first Cengaver is sent to the specified area, and afterward, Ökkes. Cengaver will spend the entire day running and hiding. Ökkes, on the other hand, must find, catch, and beat him. Because they are such close friends, Ökkes knows quite well what Cengaver might be thinking and where he might be hiding. But he doesn’t want to rely on this information based on their friendship. »He wanted to remain true to his friendship,« it is said of Ökkes. »Where could he be hiding? … These were the secrets learned through long years of companionship, friendship, and camaraderie. The aims of camaraderie were the same. One could become privy to the secrets of a heart in this way alone. One would only reveal his deepest secrets to a close friend. Now then, wouldn’t this be the same as stabbing friendship itself in the back?«
Under the sway of such thoughts Ökkes decides not to go to the places Cengaver might be hiding. »‘I too have my own custom,’ said Ökkes. ‘The custom of my heart.’« Following this custom, Ökkes refuses to go to »the places that they wandered and strayed, hunted game, caught birds, hid and played games.« He spends the entire day roaming aimlessly in the forest. It is almost evening. Ökkes finds himself in the clearing with the three beech trees where he’d been beaten by Cengaver the previous day.
»Since morning a senseless feeling had kept Ökkes away from there. Going there hadn’t crossed his mind even. (So then, he’d even made the last place they had shared together part of the young life that he needed to safeguard. So then, his heart had even protected this place, had spared it.) … He came to the three beech trees, to the one in the middle where he’d been tied yesterday. The clearing was in the center and the three beeches were in back … When Ökkes entered the clearing, Cengaver stood. He had rested his back on the middle of the three beeches and since morning he hadn’t moved. He was waiting for Ökkes. They came eye to eye. Their eyes looked out from the place where all language ends.«
In this story, the affection two individuals feel for each other dominates despite the customs that would otherwise make them enemies. Especially for Ökkes, in place of the »self,« the »other« is shielded. What emerges is the notion that maintaining a relationship of affection becomes increasingly difficult once traditions interfere, including the self-centered patriarchal discourse which causes people to despise each other. The necessity of being separate from, and even opposed to, the »other« adds an element of pain to the relationship of affection.
In addition to these two stories that are so open to an interpretation informed by Levinas and the self/other dichotomy, the other stories in Stories of Confrontation could also be approached in this framework. In fact, Ruby Fables (Lal Masallar) contains aspects that are open to such an interpretation. It is my general opinion that we can characterize Murathan Mungan’s stories as stories that have both a philosophical and psychological dimension and that allude to our collective archetypes.
Translated from the Turkish by Erdag Göknar
Posting with kind permisson by the author