I listened to this book earlier this year in preparation for my summer journey across Central Asia. When I visit another country, I try to read at least one book by an author from that country because it adds to the overall experience once I’m over there. Rather than read Orhan Pamuk — who is arguably the most famous Turkish author at the international level — I ultimately selected one of his peers, O. Z. Livaneli, whose work I had never read before.
Bliss is the story of fifteen-year-old Meryem, a Muslim girl who lives a simple and quiet life in contemporary rural Turkey. Early in the book, her uncle, the sheikh, rapes her. Everyone in the village knows she was attacked, but rather than treat her like the victim of a crime, she is condemned to death by her own family for bringing shame upon them. Meryem is told she is going to Istanbul and is thrilled; she’s always wanted to see what was beyond her village. In reality, “going to Istanbul” is code for the punishment that many other “problem girls” have been dealt in the past: they are simply taken away from the village and killed. In this case, the selected executioner is her older cousin, Cemal, a soldier in the Turkish army who has just returned from war. He doesn’t know what Meryem did to deserve death but agrees to carry out his father’s orders.
Meryem knows none of this. She trusts her cousin and, having never left her village, has a very innocent understanding of the world. The pair really do head off in the direction of Istanbul, a days-long journey during which Cemal is expected to perform the honor killing and return home. He’s not thrilled at the prospect since he grew up with Meryem, but he intends to fulfill his duties. As for Meryem, she is awestruck by every new thing she sees, including women who do not cover their heads in religious observance; the entire world has opened up to her. And along the way, there’s a possibility of it opening up even more: they cross paths with Irfan, a wealthy and cosmopolitan professor experiencing a midlife crisis.
I really enjoyed this book and I thought that Livaneli, give or take a couple of minor hiccups, did a great job of highlighting the cruelties that rural women can face. Though the story is also told from Cemal and Irfan’s point of view, it is Meryem’s perspective that takes center stage. She’s a girl who is forced to grow up very fast, but even though she’s naive to the ways of the world, she’s undeniably intelligent and headstrong.
Don’t be put off by the heavy subject matter; it’s ultimately a propitious story, and Meryem remains one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered this year.
Bliss originally released in 2002; I listened to the 2006 audiobook version.