The first of Ebru Ojen’s works to be translated from Turkish to English, Lojman conducts an unflinching taxonomy of a family’s descent to oblivion. Readers first encounter Selma and her two children Matin and Görkem in the midst of childbirth, the family’s newborn entering the world with no father or midwife in attendance in a lojman, which in this case is publicly funded lodging provided for Selma’s husband, a schoolteacher gone missing as his wife labors in a frozen and desolate plateau of modern Turkey’s Van province.
Selma’s daughter Görkem loathes her mother. The very short chapters in this novel are typically limited with the author’s direct intrusion into either Görkem’s thoughts and emotions or those of her mother, Selma.
The daughter, for example, “hated that she carried traces of Selma’s blood in her veins. Selma embodied everything she abhorred.” The author resorts to this sort of direct characterization relentlessly in a novel with only a vestige of storyline.
Selma, to take another instance, “would rather drop dead than offer her breast” to her newborn. It’s through this direct access that readers are told Görkem’s manic mother’s only real passion is to be reunited with the father of her children. Selma “yearned to writhe like a ball of mercury in her husband’s palms,” the author tells the reader, and this mode of characterization dominates the novel.
The novel’s narrative structure is essentially episodic. The desiderata of life in a blizzard in public housing are what inform Görkem’s vampiric fantasies for a murdered school teacher (“She pictured his perfect teeth sinking into his mother’s flesh . . .”), and Selma’s manic swings. Even so, the author achieves some dynamism in this extended sketch, first, by contrasting the daughter’s interior life with her mother’s, and second by integrating in vivid and wondrous detail the landscape in which the lojman and surrounding environ become characters in their own right. “Lake Van streamed forth from dark desert caves, implacable and whole, spreading out like a mercury spill to merge with the horizon, suffusing the plains in its steam, holding the mallards, the lightning strikes, and the people in place.” Nothing escapes the death informing this sulphureous region. Görkem will wrench free a migrating mallard frozen onto Lake Van’s indifferent ice, the wounded animal will die, and Selma’s daughter will bathe herself with its carcass.
There is a kind of Kafkaesque movement in these episodes that realizes its purpose in a scene that either sharpens or obfuscates what is real from what is imagined, what is jejune or jinn. Preparing the ground along the way are italicized excerpts from poems by Firat Demir, whose contribution is acknowledged. Allusions inside the text are sometimes telegraphed unnecessarily. A neighbor’s Sysphean decision to lug Selma’s dead husband to the lojman would most likely be appreciated by readers without the author’s allusion soto voce to Camus’ exploration of suicide.
In a separate passage, Nietzsche is invoked to no real purpose, and in a similar vein the author in the work’s last pages gives Selma an unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness riff that will not compete with Joyce’s Ulysses. Allusions in fiction should not announce themselves. The author can have confidence that her own language, voice, and intellect are worthy in their own right.
Selma’s neighbor returns her frozen husband to his lojam, finally, but a phantasmagoric goo has gelled the family inside, tormented souls caught in amber either real or imagined. Suicide or slaughter? “Such scenes are always full of pain and heartbreak,” the author warns at her novel’s inception, “and their beauty, at its core, belongs to nature’s nightmarish darkness.” The resolution will not surprise the reader, but will not on that account be any less compelling.