Seas of Discourse: Zülfü Livaneli’s The Fisherman and His Son
Seamen believe in luck, because they never know what the vast sea has in store for them, what blessings or disasters wait for them.
Few entities in the world’s literature are as written about as the sea. From the works of Homer to Robert Louis Stevenson to Annie Proulx, the mystery and might of the sea invites narratives about people with salt-hardened palms and the strange, iridescent beauty that lurks just beyond the depths of human senses. The obscurity of the sea’s downward expanse reflects the murky nature of human complexity, draws questions about what lies beneath, and pushes human beings to their physical and mental limits. Like life itself, the sea is a turbulent, fickle mistress that rewards those who learn to swim between its unstable waves. It is in these liminal crashes of seawater that Zülfü Livaneli’s novel The Fisherman and His Son homes in on the measured devastations and triumphs that come with sea life on the Aegean, bringing to earth the romanticism of Western writers who tend to forget that the sea, while a stunning component of natural aestheticism, is also a border—a border with all the complications of contemporary sociopolitical tensions.
The Fisherman and the Sea begins by inviting comparison to Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, from the title to its opening with a short memoir detailing Livaneli’s intimate relationship with that novel. It was through reading Hemingway’s Nobel Prize-winning book that Livaneli learned about how to push the limits of human endurance on the page, and through reading the novel for a radio adaptation that he learned to write dialogue. It was Hemingway whose work Livaneli read as a child, hiding under his bed with a flashlight to escape the punishing eye of his father. But this is where Hemingway ends and Livaneli begins.
In the opening moments of the novel, when a tourist relates the plot of The Old Man and the Sea, the narrator reminds us that the fisherman of Livaneli’s novel is young and that the titular old man of Hemingway’s novel was stupid for holding onto the fish. The fisherman remarks to the tourist that he believes the massive marlin of Hemingway’s novel should have been granted the opportunity to remain free:
If that fish was so wonderful, if it struggled for its life for days, he should have cut the line and said, Go, my lion, you deserve to live, may the sea bless you. Sometimes you catch a huge fish, sir, you come eye to eye with it as you pull it into the boat, and it looks at you so pitifully you can’t bear to kill it, so you throw it back into the sea.
Creatures who fight so hard for their freedom should be permitted to remain free. The novel then proceeds to place distance between itself and Hemingway’s work in order to present a story bathed in Aegean saltwater and soaked in Aegean concerns.
The novel centers around a couple living on a Turkish coastal village in the Aegean Sea. The wife, Mesude, of Cretan descent, and the husband Mustafa, a Turkish fisherman, represent both sides of a porous border. They lose their only son, Deniz, to the sea when the boy is only seven, and their relationship has soured as a result. When Mustafa finds a baby, pushed to him by a dolphin, amongst the floating bodies of refugees who had been on a capsized boat during their flight to Greece, he seizes on the opportunity to fill in the space of his marriage that had been lost upon Deniz’s death. The sea had taken his son from him, but now it supplies him with a new child. The rest of the novel follows the relationship between Mesude and Mustafa as authorities grow suspicious about a child reported missing from the boat’s wreckage. The child’s mother, it seems, has survived. In order to retain possession of the child they have nursed back to health, they hatch a plan to fool the authorities, one that involves Mustafa’s pregnant sister.
The backdrop of this narrative is one of modernization, gentrification, and international political upheaval. Of industrialism disrupting an agrarian working class. Of nature corrupted by an intrusive capitalism. Mining and fish farms have changed the landscape quite literally, resorts have brought in the bustle of tourists who fetishize local fishermen, and poisonous, invasive fish species eat through fishing nets and devour the local fish populations. The government sends a university scholar to explain how to combat these invasive species, but his advice only serves to contextualize a destruction that seems inevitable. Further, a refugee crisis has arisen, and more than sixteen thousand refugees—from Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, and other places—have drowned during transport across the Aegean. International governments and corporations, just as invasive as the fish species, have poisoned Mustafa’s coastal village and its people by rejecting human decency in favor of bureaucratic brutality and corporate profit.
This is a novel in conversation with Hemingway, one that grounds Hemingway’s seagoing theme of resilience with threads of pragmatism and an understanding of the larger consequences of conflict on individuals. Mustafa and Mesude represent both sides of a maritime border that blends with multicultural concerns instead of dividing along constructed definitions of national identity. The surge in refugees fleeing across the Aegean from Turkey to Greece has only grown since the 2016 deployment of a NATO fleet to the region to address the crisis and has led to the building of fences across the land border between the two nations, and even threats of war. Livaneli touches on this tension and the bureaucratic tension created by water crossings throughout the novel.
Livaneli’s inclusion of the true story of a British-built Greek destroyer, the Adrias, arriving half-obliterated in the harbor during World War II highlights the bureaucratic failures of Western administration in the Aegean. The British military returns the mauled destroyer to Greece, leaving behind one very distraught Greek sailor. While the Turkish residents of the World War II-era port community took in the Greek sailor as one of their own, the contemporary Turkish population feels this same mercy is not given to refugees attempting to enter Europe through Crete and the Aegean. Instead of caring for refugees whose boats are disintegrating in the high waves, Turkey and Greece have decided to return these refugees to countries where they face penalties for attempting to flee. The flashback acts as a historical referent to demonstrate the kindness inherent in a Turkish culture that embraces hospitality, even when acting as a neutral power uninvolved in the conflicts of other countries. The refugees of the contemporary Aegean Sea are people fleeing conflicts in countries such Syria and Afghanistan, yet they are not often afforded the same sort of asylum that even Western belligerents were given during World War II.
When Mesude meets the baby’s mother, she is forced into a dilemma echoing that of the port community and the Greek ship during World War II—should she provide a safe home for the baby or will the baby be left wailing in a cemetery (like the Greek sailor after the ship leaves) when the mother is punished for the abandonment of their Afghan home? Mustafa and Mesude must make a choice to carry on in the ill-fated pursuit of replacing their drowned son with the baby gifted them by the ocean—a pursuit that will surely land them in prison—or hand the baby over in an act that will likely result in the baby’s demise. In the process of making this choice, they realize people do not fight their battles in isolation between mountains of seawater or in a vacuum of hypermasculine idealism; they suffer together and sometimes apart with a thin connective tissue strung between them.
At his core, Livaneli is an activist. Through a career that spans twenty books, several literary awards, forty music albums, and a term in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, he has elevated issues that impact the Turkish people. This novel carries on that trend by focusing on the deaths of refugees crossing into Greece from Turkey through the Aegean, refugees who have come from Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It seeks to explore and amplify the impact on the border that is the Aegean Sea as it struggles with a refugee crisis, one brought on by international conflict and not by anything the local population has done. As the narrator points out, “the villagers could nothing but watch their sea die a slow death.”
The translator is Brendan Freely, a Turkish resident who previously translated Two Girls by Perihan Mağden, The Gaze by Elif Şafak, and Like a Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan. Here, he has translated the spirit of Livaneli’s activism into a smooth prose unafraid of the complicated metaphors contained within the novel. In reference to the rumors surrounding the temporary separation of Mustafa and Mesude, the village is compared to “the sponges that divers brought up from the depths. It absorbed and digested pain, sorrow, delight, and disaster,” giving readers a gateway into the culture of small-town Turkish maritime communities. When Mustafa enters into a deep depression and considers fleeing his home, the narrator asks, “Could someone who knew how to swim succeed at drowning himself? Even if he made the decision, would his body obey?” In Mustafa’s pain and brief desire to share in his birth son’s death, Freely translates the emotional response present in the prose that reminds us that Mustafa has the resilience and competence to move beyond his agony. While at times these metaphors become a touch heavy-handed, I believe such metaphors help to direct readers to the urgency of the matters touched on in the work.
As a whole, The Fisherman and His Son tackles a big subject—the braiding of international conflict with familial desire—and lands in a moment of optimism for Mustafa and his wife, despite larger systemic pressures that threaten their livelihood. This is a novel in line with the sort of compassionate revolution that Livaneli himself espouses: one in which love and solidarity lays the groundwork for survival in the tumult of modern life. The focus on working-class characters caught in a larger sea of international discord juxtaposed with a backdrop of the corporate consolidation of local life helps highlight why human compassion is so revolutionary in the contemporary world. In the face of an encroaching capitalism that threatens the livelihoods of fisherman navigating the Aegean in small boats, even as his friends look to sabotage the corporate fish farms taking on what was once their economic contribution, Mustafa remembers that human life is what remains most sacred to him and to his culture. It is in the sea-soaked bundle of a child’s life that the sustainability of his village truly lies, where the refusal to succumb to autocratic dictates of who lives and who dies generates resistance. When Mustafa is told that the future of the village is “something that concerns us all,” and chooses to care for the child he has found, we, as readers, are reminded of our own individual calls to compassion and activism. This novel further proves Livaneli is an artist, one who understands how a single compassionate act by one or two people can resist the grinding wheels of international politics and invasive capitalism. And it is in this resistance, in this struggle, that Livaneli’s fisherman finds a way to help a child lost among the waves become free.