Book Talk

The Trojan War Museum

Marcela Davison Avilés

When I was seven, the blurred world I took for granted was corrected with my first pair of glasses. Wearing them for the first time was a revelation — everything suddenly snapped into place, clear and sharp. And listening to my father's fairy tales while wearing glasses was wondrous — I could see clearly while getting lost.

That's the kind of astonishing illumination you'll find in The Trojan War Museum, Ayşe Papatya Bucak's debut story collection. These are stories that reflect the author's Turkish heritage and a curiosity about our human search for meaning as profound as it is lyrical. The stories are music. They beguile and illuminate with narratives about yearning and desire, circumstance and courage, resilience and discovery. Reading them, while the reading lasts, replaces seeing.

I found myself lingering as I read — Bucak's prose has a sort of musical cadence to it; these are fables about enchantment, myth and actual history. Her subjects — schoolgirls stuck in the debris of a disaster, an art collector's exotic oeuvre, a Trojan War Museum imagined and re-imagined by Zeus and his fellow deities, a widow's chess match with her dead husband's ghost — occupy a dreamscape of surprising encounters, art history, and Turkish culture.

Each story is a vignette that has at its core a re-weaving of human relationships. In the opening tale, a group of young girls is caught in an explosion at their school. Deep in the rubble, a colloquy emerges between those who survive and the ghosts of those who perished. Their conversation is the stuff of playground cliques and emergency rescues and the implacable yearning of children caught between safety and desire.

Another story spins a real-life fable about a 19th century Turkish diplomat and his art collection. Halil Şerif Pasha, also known as Halil Bey, was a man who became infamous by collecting women, celebrities and erotic paintings. Bucak recreates his life through the backstory of each art masterpiece in his collection. We meet the artists and their muses — Courbet, David, Ingres, Renoir and Whistler — and step into depicted worlds re-depicted as a journey through time and myth, encountering Cupid, Psyche, Turkish baths, sultans and their more powerful mothers, the seraglio, Scheherazade, odalisques and tortoise trainers, and artists jealous of each other's lovers.

We learn that "once there was and once there wasn't" a time and place where people lived through their art and each other, often intermingling the two. As a writer of blended Turkish and American heritage, Bucak's voice reaches beyond authenticity, and delivers a nuanced shading of the cultural syncretism framed within Halil Bey's Paris salon. This story is a gallery tour which presents a question — does identity begin outside of a picture frame or within it? The first sentence of a story called "Good Fortune" exemplifies Bucak's luminous use of wit and prose poetics: "If you put the changeling in the fire and the changeling goes up the chimney, the human child will be returned." From that fire, we enter the world of a luxury hotel in Miami that is frequented by wealthy birth tourists — foreigners who want their children born in the US — and the Turkish hotel manager whose job is to see to their needs and secrecy.

One day, a hotel maid discovers a threatening note under the door of an empty hotel room, a hotel guest finds another; the manager finds a third note threatening blackmail or worse, the mystery author threatens to out hotel guests in a new book of fiction. The action is observed by the hotel manager who must determine the author's identity in order to save herself and her anonymous guests. She is accompanied by two jinns — supernatural sprites — who sit on her shoulders.

One whispers an instruction to be trusting; the other whispers the opposite. The hunt for the author uncovers more surprising bits of information about hiding wives, hidden babies, secret families. Is this a fairy story, or a thriller, or a novela — or is the hotel manager a dream? Yes. Because when you wake up from the dream that is this little book, awakening becomes remembering that dreams are another way to understand reality.