Patasana: Murder at an Archaeological Dig

PatasanaVisiting another country is an opportunity to be introduced to new authors, to read outside one’s preferred genre and to gain new historical perspectives. So while I am already a fan of the more well-known in the English language writers, Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, Ahmet Ümit was completely unknown to me and while mystery isn’t my preferred genre, a book that introduces us to new places and offers insights into other cultures and their way of life is certainly appealing.

I asked in the bookshop in Istanbul for A Memento of Istanbul, another book written by Ahmet Ümit, but it wasn’t available. The only book they had in English by him, had to be retrieved from the basement. I’m not sure if that is significant or not, although having got to the end of the book and knowing the controversy surrounding the treatment of the Armenian population within Turkey, allowing his characters to thrash out their opposing views,may have courted controversy.

In 2012 France tried to make denial of the Armenian Genocide a criminal offence, souring relations between the two countries, however the draft law was struck down.

HIttites

Ancient Hittites

Patasana was the son and grandson of a palace scribe, who wrote his story and that of his father and grandfather onto tablets that were then sealed and are now being uncovered 2700 years later.

Each alternate chapter is a translation of one of the tablets, so while we follow the contemporary story of the archaeological dig of an antique Hittite settlement in southeast Anatolia and it’s team members, we also learn what Patasana lived through, the confessions of a young scribe, his life, love and regrets.

Hittite Chariot

Hittite Chariot

“He was the chief scribe of the palace, a very important government position among the Hittites. These men were extremely well-educated. They knew several languages. Their duty was to compose texts as dictated by the king, not to write down their own feelings, thoughts and memories. But that didn’t keep the scribe Patasana from writing down his own story. That’s why the tablets are so important….We believe what we have here is the earliest documentation of humankind’s non-official history….We think he’s telling the story of the ancient city’s final days. And together with the history of the city, his own personal history as well.”

Unsure whether it is related to the dig or not, a local elder is discovered dead, having fallen, or been pushed from the minaret of the mosque, a man in monks clothes seen fleeing the scene. Esra, the leader of the team is paranoid about upsetting locals and having her first dig cancelled before they have uncovered all the tablets and participated in an important press conference being held to satisfy their funders. Her insistence on knowing everything and getting close to the police captain makes her just as suspicious as virtually every character who at one time or other she imagines as a suspect.

Euphrates River, Anatolia

Euphrates River, Anatolia

Whilst it could have done with some editing down, it is an enjoyable and I believe popular book. It is interesting that the author was born in Gaziantep, southern Antolia and while on a family picnic near the Euphrates River saw an excavation site, an old Hittite city, prompting him to immerse himself in researching the area, its people and customs and then write this book.

Ahmet Ümit himself sounds like an interesting character straight from a novel and it is clear that his own life has inspired many of the stories and characters he has written. As a young man he was a revolutionary political activist and a member of the Turkish Communist Party and he illegally attended the Academy for Social Science for a while in Moscow.

In an interview with Maria Eliades in Time Out Istanbul in 2011 he said:

“In this land, there’s a problem with history. The Turks came here 1,000 years ago but the land has a history that is 200,000 years old. Generally, the government believes that history began 1,000 years ago. They do not count the history of people who were not Muslim. In my novels, I’m trying to show how these people influenced the history and where their position was. I’m trying to emphasize how the Hittites, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Armenians, Greeks and all the different groups affected it. Turkey needs this: an independent view of people, regardless of their race or religion. That’s the basis of my books. The detective part of the story is a catalyst for explaining the untold part of the stories.”

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22 thoughts on “Patasana: Murder at an Archaeological Dig

  1. This sounds like an intriguing book. The last quote is particularly informative and striking. Saw that you gave it 3 out of 5 stars on Twitter. Reasons for not getting higher rating? Just curious. 😉

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    • One of those tricky things with stars, which I don’t give easily. A 5 star is extremely rare for me and 4 suggests the writing has transported me somehow, difficult in the case of a translation which could have done with a little more editing. But the story, the locations, the history and insight into food and culture certainly makes me wish to read more of his work. So don’t let the 3 stars put you off, I did enjoy the book.

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  2. Sounds interesting. When I was young(er) I used to read mysteries quite often. It was fun to try to figure them out before the end. Then I stopped and moved on to other genres. Until you went on this trip and wrote about Turkish authors I hadn’t read any. I am now reading Portrait of a Turkish Family and I’m enjoying it. Thanks for giving me the prod I needed.

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    • I’m saving that masterpiece for last! So so happy to learn that you are reading it, and can’t wait to hear your thoughts, I do hope you share them in a blog post.

      I’ve just subscribed to Peirene Press in an effort to read more widely, across more countries. They are putting their prices up on the 1st June, so decided to jump in and make the commitment, I can’t wait to have the gift of contemporary European literature dropping on my doorstep every three months! This is better than Christmas gifts (especially as I did not receive 1 book last Christmas – so I’m taking matters into my own hands!)

      Check them out, you may be tempted 🙂

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      • Will do! Sounds like a fab self-gifting idea. I love giving myself gifts. Maybe I will blog about the book once I’m done reading it. Good idea.

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  3. Fascinating. I also noticed that the black and white drawing of the Hittite chariot shows 8 horse hooves. Is that simply telling us that, generally, 2 horses pulled a chariot or might there be some symbolic significance attached? The chariot itself seems quite compact despite carrying 3 Hittites. The shield, too, may be symbolic.

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    • So the Hittites were charioteers and wrote manuals on horsemanship apparently. Ninth century B.C. stone reliefs such as this one, show Hittite warriors in chariots. They were the first great aggressors in human history and were rivals of ancient Egypt, where this picture came from. They had an easy time conquering due to their advanced skills and horsemanship, and they were also one of the first cultures to smelt iron and forge it into weapons and tools.

      And most of us are descendants of them! Apparently nearly all Europeans and North Americans descend from these tribes.

      I think the number of hooves represents the larger chariot capable of carrying 2 or 3 people and usually with the intention of conquering as opposed to the locally used chariot used for more agricultural purposes perhaps. 🙂

      Wow, it’s such an interesting subject in itself. Check out this link.

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      • Very interesting! Yes! one could spend hours researching one symbol on these amazing artifacts. Each has its own story and history. Thanks so much for this.

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  4. I agree, sounds interesting. Imagine if all of history were waiting to be uncovered, especially that which has tended to not be told – the history of women.

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    • I am sure there is much to be uncovered and I was intrigued about this Mother Goddess mentioned.

      Speaking of the history of women, if you are not already, you may be interested in following the blog If Women Ruled. I’ve been following her since she spent one year reading around the world and now her new project is What if History was Herstory? She’s still looking for resources, so if you have any recommendations, do visit and let her know and have a read, it’s an interesting subject.

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  5. A really interesting review. One problem is that is is very difficult to obtain this book (in its English edition) as it is not available to buy from on-line book sellers. Anyone who knows of such a service please say as I would be very happy to read this.

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  6. Sounds an intriguing book – really must check it out! I am a huge fan of archaeology, ancient history & the past-present flip is a stunning writing technique, very hard to do well but brilliant when it works. (I am thinking of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The House on the Strand’ as a rather good variant on that one)….

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    • I agree, digging into the past and sharing a story from another era at the same time appeals to me, funnily enough another writer who does that is another Turkish writer Elif Shafak in her Forty Rules of Love.

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  7. Pingback: Ottoman Distractions | Word by Word

  8. Pingback: Ahmet Ümit: On literature and politics | The Turkish Literature Blog: Elif Şafak, Mario Levi, Latife Tekin...

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