Labyrinth, page 1
Also by Burhan Sönmez
Sins and Innocents
Copyright © 2018 İletişim Yayınları
English translation copyright © 2019 Ümit Hussein
Originally published in Turkish as Labirent in 2018 by İletişim Yayınları, Istanbul
Excerpt from Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges. Copyright © 1980 by María Kodama, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, copyright © 1984 by Eliot Weinberger. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Production editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas
Text designer: Jennifer Daddio / Bookmark Design & Media Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from Other Press LLC, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast. For information write to Other Press LLC, 267 Fifth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10016. Or visit our Web site: www.otherpress.com
The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Names: Sönmez, Burhan, author. | Hussein, Ümit, translator.
Title: Labyrinth / Burhan Sönmez ; translated from the Turkish by Ümit Hussein.
Other titles: Labirent. English
Description: New York : Other Press, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2019015339 | ISBN 9781590510988 (pbk.) | ISBN 9781590511008 (ebook)
Classification: LCC PL248.S565 L3313 2019 | DDC 894/.3534—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019015339
Ebook ISBN 9781590511008
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Also by Burhan Sönmez
A Leap Off the Bosphorus Bridge
Like a Spider That Doesn’t Leave Its Web
You Shouldn’t Always Take the Same Route Home
Its Walls Are Made of Bricks, Its Roof of Dreams
You’re a Drifter All Alone in the Street of Night
Before Finding That Word
If I Try Changing One Cog
Timeline of Some Dates in Labyrinth and in Turkey
It only takes two facing mirrors to construct a labyrinth.
J. L. BORGES, SEVEN NIGHTS
It is not man who discovers the word,
it is the word that comes to him.
PASTOR EDOUARD DE MONTMOLLIN’S SERMON AT BORGES’S FUNERAL
An alarm clock goes off. It sounds like the bell summoning the weary crew members of a cargo ship to dinner. But who remembers cargo ships? It’s coming from the next apartment, or perhaps from a dream. From the dream of someone sleeping in the next apartment. A breeze blows in through the open balcony door. The net curtain billows. Whatever season this may be, the cool of the morning gives it a certain freshness. As the bottom of the net curtain flutters towards the bed, the sound of the alarm clock grows louder. Without opening his eyes, Boratin reaches out and tries to turn it off. His hand gropes the bedside table. He stops. He pauses for a moment, then tries again. When he fails to locate the clock, he opens his eyes. Outside, the day is dawning. The objects in the room are hazy, silhouetted. Where is he? It doesn’t look like a hospital room. The blanket, the balcony, and the window are different. No, this isn’t a hospital. I think I’ve come home. The sky is visible from the window. There are medicine bottles at the far end of the bedside table. Although the medicine helps him sleep, it doesn’t soothe his headache. His eyes close again. His hand falls onto the pillow. As the leaves of a tree rustle somewhere close to the balcony, the coolness caresses his bare arms.
Boratin awakes when the sky is bright and the wind has abated. The net curtain is still. Outside there is a murmur that has gradually built up and intensified since it first started out in distant neighborhoods. He looks around him, trying to ascertain whether he has ever woken up here before. The room is spacious. The walls are a plain ivory color, but the maple veneer of the wardrobe opposite him is too light. A darker shade would have looked better. Who chose that wardrobe, was it me? Boratin questions his own taste. When they brought him here last night he had hoped that this unfamiliar house might trigger some memories in the light of day. The balcony door, the wardrobe, and the bedside table remind him of a hotel room where he is staying for the first time. The only familiar objects are the medicine bottles. He perches on the edge of the bed. He winces at the pain in his chest. He pulls up his undershirt and inspects his ribs. He walks over to the mirror to get a better view. One of his right ribs is broken. He touches it. He feels the burning under his skin. He was lucky, that’s what they said. Only one fracture. His body had suffered no other injuries: Memory loss doesn’t count as a bodily injury. He raises his eyes and looks at his face. The face he met a week ago. It’s that new. Hello stranger, he says. He can tell from its lip movements that the face in the mirror is answering him with the same words. Just like last night. When he came home yesterday everything was silent. He wandered through the rooms with careful footsteps, as though exploring a museum, gingerly picking his way around the ornaments and guitars. He took his medication out of the hospital bag. He drank two glasses of water. He examined his face in the mirror. He removed his shirt, trousers, and socks. He lay down, closed his eyes, and waited without moving. He counted his inhalations and exhalations. He hadn’t forgotten how to count. Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three. Then he drifted off.
At the hospital they had told him to stay calm. You’ve lost your memory, don’t be afraid, you’ll get it back eventually, they had said. First they had dealt with his rib, then they had wanted to know what could have happened to this man who was trying hard to create a whole person out of his broken rib and his blank memory. It’s strange, he had said to his doctor, you’re more interested in me than I am. It’s my job, the doctor had replied. Losing your memory may seem very daunting Boratin Bey, but your situation isn’t that bad, considering. At least we know who you are and where you live, thanks to the cards in your wallet. You may not remember, but those details are part of who you are, just like that tattoo on your back that you don’t know where or why you had done. For now you own things that you can’t explain, things that will take shape over time. Whatever your past story may be, perhaps what you wanted was to get away from some aspect of this world. You were bold enough to attempt it, and you even succeeded. You fulfilled your objective in a way you could never have imagined. By taking a leap off the Bosphorus Bridge…. From now on you’ll map out a much better path. Tell me Doc
I search for a comforting sign in my reflection, an expression that will point me in the right direction. I place my ear on the face in the mirror, where its mouth was. It’s smooth. Cool. I hear the roar of a wave that got trapped here many eras ago. Dark desires. The dank odor of a cellar. I’m approaching the time I used to live in but have tumbled out of. I am about to try descending into my memory down a different ladder and lighting the blue lantern in the vault of the past, when I am startled by the sound of ringing. Is it coming from inside or outside? It sounds like the alarm on the clock that rang all night. I follow the sound out into the hallway. I walk past a gloomy painting. I spy a black and red telephone at the opposite end of the lounge. I stop and wonder what to do. The telephone falls silent before I can make up my mind. It has an old-fashioned receiver, with keys that you don’t press but dial. It sits in a holder made of decorative wrought gold metal, the kind that old people like. The telephone starts ringing again. This time with more determination. If I answer, an unfamiliar voice will ask me how I am. It won’t feel the need to introduce itself. It will simply assume I know it. When I remain silent it will repeat its question. After a moment’s hesitation it will start speaking for me. It will talk about things we have to do. It will remind me of some get-together or meal we’re supposed to be attending. It will prattle on about life’s misfortunes. After a brief show of compassion it will start to reproach me in an aggrieved tone. It will enumerate every evil in existence, naming someone who has fallen victim to each one, and then, without giving me a chance to hang up, heap the blame for the victims’ doom on my head. Because I do not speak, it will jump from topic to topic. When the subject moves on to the good turns I have done it, the voice will soften, it will say it is thanks to me that it has been able to enjoy life’s blessings, but that it doesn’t understand how I ended up this way. I will seize the opportunity to intervene. I will say that I don’t understand how I ended up this way either. I will ask it to help me, and if it knows any secrets about me, to let me in on them right away. As I have lost my memory, I have lost the life I have led all these years too, I’m back at zero. I will plead with it for mercy, as though it were a guardian holding my past in the palm of its hand. I will select the most beseeching words. I will tell the voice on the other end of the telephone a story that has stuck in a corner of my mind. The future is as unattainable as the past. I can’t use the stars to guide me. I can feel an avalanche approaching fast, mingling into the sounds of traffic, plunging and tumbling behind towers and skyscrapers. My heart is telling me I have to hurry. I rush to draw the curtains. I pull the curtains tightly so no light will seep in through any crack. The telephone falls silent.
I am sitting on the sofa in the lounge, waiting for the telephone to start ringing again. I notice a figurine on the mantelpiece, between a row of candles of all different colors. I recognize the mother and son in the marble figurine. Mary is holding Jesus in her arms and gazing at his lifeless face. The curve of the marble flows from Mary’s forehead to her nose, and from there to her lips, like water. Jesus’ chest is bare, you can count every one of his right ribs. Mary clutches her son with one hand and raises the other into the air, as though pleading for help. Although I recognize them, I can’t place them in time. How many years has it been? Has it been just a few years since their suffering, or a few thousand?
While outside it’s bustling with street sellers, rowdy children, and taxi drivers listening to loud Arabesk music, despite everything, I feel safe in this house that, for some unfathomable reason, is mine. People should familiarize themselves with objects before familiarizing themselves with other people, and carve out their place among them. The rest is a matter of asking questions, listening to sounds, wandering through rooms, and waiting for answers. I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait. What if I never get an answer? There are logs piled up beside the fireplace. A wooden cabinet is filled with bottles of drink. The lounge is occupied by guitars, records, coffee tables, chandeliers, rugs, a table and chairs, all looking as though they have never once shifted from their places. The crystals on the chandelier above my head hang down in multitudes, growing in number until they have taken over the entire ceiling—you can’t get a view of one side of the chandelier from the other. Even prolific families of snakes could nest in the multiple rows of crystals and live out their lives there. At midnight when the entire city is sleeping (does the city sleep?) the snakes slither from the chandelier and spread out over the ceiling, wandering over the walls with their immortal fluid, hissing as they glide behind the curtains, curling and winding and exchanging venom as they copulate; then, at the first light of day, their blood appeased and their skin glistening, they return to their nests. If every house has its secret proprietors, the proprietors of this one are the snakes, they are the source of both curses and good fortune.
I wonder if I have ever been caught up in this bizarre daydream before. As I gaze at each individual piece of furniture, looking for a compass to guide me, I realize that everything in this house is elderly. The table and chairs are the same age as extinct trees, the rugs the same age as nomad tents. I might not be able to differentiate between one year and a thousand years, but I do know that this life belongs to death. And I also realize that it’s not what I know that I should be suspicious of, but what I don’t know. I ask myself why, when the noises in the street have their own meaning, this house doesn’t offer me any meaning. Within the mute walls, I wonder which of us has become forgetful, have I forgotten my house, or has my house forgotten me? Which of us has been giving nothing away since yesterday; who, like a blind beggar, has been suspended in a void and become withdrawn? I wonder what my connection is to the three guitars on metal stands in front of me. Next to the guitars is a record player and a record rack. There are a few old album covers hanging on the back wall. The first album on the top row is Delta Blues. Next to it are Bessie Smith, Howlin’ Wolf, and Chicago Blues albums. The album cover on the bottom row says “Submarine.” The whitewash of the wall behind the inexplicably solitary Submarine sparkles. When I realize that the shine is coming from the sunlight, I turn and look. The curtain is open a tiny crack. The light enters and shines through it. I get up and pull the curtains open. I am dazzled by the light that floods in. I take a few tentative steps towards the center of the lounge.
I feel as though my life in this house is nothing but a series of repetitions. I lose my memory over and over again: Each time I open my eyes in the hospital and after a few days I come home. I wake up with the same headache. I learn how to divide time into minutes and hours. The names of seasons are pleasing to me, in any language. I go to sleep late and when, one morning, I wake up in the hospital again, having lost my memory, I realize I am caught up in the world’s eternal cycle. Empty. Alone. I think that these thoughts that assail me at home too, now that I have left the hospital, are driving me to the brink of madness. I search for meaning in objects by asking questions. The velvet sofa cover is beautiful. The red of the velvet is beautiful. The Mary in the figurine is beautiful. But what does beautiful mean? If I hadn’t lost my memory, would I know?
I caress the furry velvet on the sofa. I observe my joints while moving my fingers as though they were part of a machine. A machine with human feelings. It has a brain, but from time to time the program inside it rewinds to the beginning. It comes and goes between zero and one. The world too consists of the movement between those two numbers. Sometimes that movement, which is also known as time, comes to life at my fingertips, like a newborn animal. An animal and
Open the door Boratin, it’s me, Bek. Struggling to match the voice outside with the face forming in my mind, I reach for the lock. I turn the key slowly, in an attempt to buy time for my memory. I open the door a crack, as though it’s liable to open out into empty space. I look at the man waiting in the dimly lit hallway. I know his face, he’s my friend (is he my friend?) who came to visit me in the hospital twice. He was worried on his first visit, reassured on the second. His voice inspired trust. Are you well? Yes. I went to the hospital this morning, they said you’d been discharged, I thought you were staying till the beginning of next week? I don’t know, I told them yesterday I wanted to be discharged and they said okay. How could they let you leave when there’s no one to take care of you? They didn’t let me leave straightaway, they phoned you, only your phone was switched off. But I didn’t want to spend another moment in that crowded ward listening to all those sick people groaning.