Making fun of those “other people” became their favorite pastime. As their dislike for other people increased, they felt more confident, more self-sufficient. But they never mocked each other. This was one of their unwritten rules. Friendship and mockery was not the best combination. Mocking one’s friend was an unbearable thing, they discovered, something akin to a crime.
In winter it was a pleasure to meet at night and share a bottle of brandy. They would talk for hours on end. Shadows of their figures would slowly move on the wallpaper and they would forget about time, about life, about other people. A pack of cigarettes would accompany their conversation. Very often it was a pack of Camels—smoking the brand in Istanbul heightened the pleasure. "Turkish tobacco" it said on the cover and they finished pack after pack looking at the Bosphorus.
Deep into the night, one of them would mention a name and the other would begin to mock it. In between insult and mockery there was a thin line, one which they crossed in a very short period of time. And with that change came more sophisticated inventions.
Their mockery became polished while they turned into perfectionists in insolence. There was pride at forging sentences so sharp that they ran through their adversaries like spears. And of course the nice thing was that their attacks never quite reached their destinations. Theirs were strictly private entertainments. Like a pile of logs preserved to warm a cabin in the winter season, those fierce sentences were stacked together to be used in time of need. As they were burned to ashes, the lives of their adversaries were mercifully spared while their own perseverance was refreshed. There was a sense of warmth and peace that enveloped them during these sessions, a feeling that often resembled joy.
Their acquaintance was a recent phenomenon. Only a year had passed since they'd first set eyes on each other. In that first meeting, one of them said: “When two novelists come together, it sometimes feels as if they have known each other for a lifetime. They share the same history, after all.” The other didn't quite know what that meant. But he was sure of not sharing the feeling himself. They were strangers before they met, he reflected, and strangers they would remain in the future.
Nocturnal walks was another habit. During these sessions, they would attempt to learn what the other was working on. Five years separated them in age but in reticence they were identical. Neither liked to speak about the chapter he was working on, and this made each increasingly suspicious about the comparative worth of his own work. It was impossible to determine, by either of them, whether the other’s novel was better or worse than the one he was working on.
This suspicion began in the early days of their acquaintance and grew to such an extent that when they came together, both sides took pains to conceal their mutual sense of curiosity. Each made sure that nothing relating to their work was left out there for the other to see. Before each visit, desks were carefully inspected, notebooks moved to safe places. But none of these made that particular feeling of not knowing any more bearable.
* * *
During idle hours each was agonized by the irritating idea that the other was fast at work in his study, composing passages of excellent prose which would in a very short period of time be acknowledged as showing unmistakable signs of literary genius. Every minute spent on eating, drinking or sleeping was seen as lost time in which the other side gained an irreversible advantage over the other in his efforts.
The younger writer was the more "bohemian"; the poorer of two. He waited patiently to see his friend fail. The older writer, on the other hand, possessed superior financial means; he was patient but in a different sense: his patience did not show, and no one could tell whether he was simply waiting, or waiting for a particular thing.
They would meet at those posh cafés in Sultanahmet, filled with tourists and always open to new encounters. The mature one preferred to stay in his own rooms and would serve his young friend countless cups of strong Turkish tea. One week it would be the café outside and the following would see the couple at his rooms. When the thing was over, they would be much relieved to see the pressure of not knowing depart from their minds.
Sultanahmet meetings were more exciting. Being outside made them feel more at ease. There they would smoke a water pipe and enjoy the company of foreigners. "In their eyes we are exotic subjects of an oriental culture," the younger writer once said. When they spotted a best-seller on their tables, they would talk about how ignorant those tourists were. Then they would take comfort in the heroes of European culture: in their centuries old poets, in their dusty idols, in their dead.
These were nice distractions with which they could avoid talking about their work. And these meetings served another crucial function. There each would be happy to see the other at his side, safely idle and non-producing. It seemed that only through these meetings could they bear the existence of each other. Only then could they feel absolutely safe.
That particular morning the younger writer managed to compose four pages of dialogue for the opening chapter of his novel. He therefore felt content during their meeting a few hours later. There were great ideas in his mind and he wanted to keep them in a safe place. So he opened his notebook, took some notes, closed it and left the table to buy another pack of Camels.
It was ten minutes later when he realized, at the newsstand, that his notebook was not with him. It was left on the table, open to inspection by his great friend, his great enemy.
* * *
Together they took walks in ancient neighborhoods and particularly enjoyed the dockyards of Karaköy. They both supposed that those places played an important role in each other's novels.
At times neither cared to know what the other was writing. They would lose interest in everything. Their books were meaningless, their efforts were in vain, life didn’t mean anything. But they kept on working and they kept on smoking and drinking until one day the older writer announced that he had finished his book.
It was exactly four months after the incident of the forgotten notebook.
That evening, the young writer visited his friend and was caught off his guard when he heard the news.
“It feels so good,” the host said, “to be finally done with it.”
“Done with it? This is surely a joke.”
“No it isn’t,” came the reply. “My guess is that it will published in a few months’ time.”
“And can I see it?” But the older writer did not like the idea and served him with a glass of strong tea.
“You will be the first to read it when it gets published.”
The young man reflected for a few moments on what he could do and then decided to get his hands on his friend’s book. But he knew this would be no easy task.
A week later he asked to meet once again, in his apartment. His friend had no objection to the idea.
“Let me make some tea for you,” he said.
Once inside the living room he carefully looked about the desks. Upon spotting the outlines of an object that might be the manuscript, he asked his friend for some biscuits. Then he quickly approached the object which he now understood to be a book shaped box of chocolates.
When his friend returned, he apologized for not having any biscuits left in the kitchen.
“Ah, that’s perfectly alright. And what about your novel? Did you send it to the publisher yet?”
“No, I am just fine-tuning the introduction before submitting it to the editor.”
“Do you have an editor in mind?”
A week later he got lucky. After hours of shop talk, his friend finally fell asleep. He was snoring in the fashion of a man who would go on sleeping for many hours. He placed a blanket over the body and walked to the little study next door.
But the manuscript wasn’t there. The box of chocolates was also gone. He made up his mind to approach the computer from where he could send the book to his inbox.
At home, the document was waiting for him, fresh from the press, as it were. Putting aside work for his own novel once more, he carefully placed the printed pages of his friend’s book in an envelope. Then he headed outside.
* * *
When he came home that night, things smelled differently. Nothing had taste anymore. He wanted to cut his wrists, torture a cat, hit someone in the face.
For the book was flawless. Pitch perfect prose, excellent plot, impressive characters all around. And the language was delicious from beginning to end. His friend had managed to write the perfect first novel.
The more terrible and unbearable thing was that it was built on his own ideas. Compared to that, his novel seemed like a much less advanced version of the perfect début.
Taking refuge at an armchair, the young man cried for quarter of an hour. A moment later, his mother came to his room, evidently surprised by his son’s show of emotion.
He said it was toothache.
His only hope was that the book, completed and perfect, was not yet sent to the editor. But during their next meeting, his friend announced that a week from now he would see one of the most influential editors in the country. After a few minutes he would ceremonially place the manuscript to his esteemed hands.
“How exciting!” he said. “When we meet again, you should tell me all about it.”
“I most certainly will.”
For their next meeting, they decided to go to Sultanahmet. There they spent time together at a silent café which was, conveniently, devoid of tourists. He had the envelope with him, but did not mention it once. Their words echoed in the empty hall, but there was no one to hear them.
“It is the weather’s fault,” the waiter said. “When it rains they all disappear like ants.”
His friend told him that tomorrow was the big day. He would be meeting with the editor for lunch. He planned to wear his best suit and tell him about his life, his dreams and his next novel.
After coffee the young man proposed visiting the Basilica Cistern where they could pray for the success of his book.
“Pray for it? I am sure that this is the first time you’re actually mocking me,” his friend said.
“Come on, that’s not mocking, that’s celebrating. It will be great,” came the reply.
Inside the cistern the air was dark and damp. One of the security guards was peacefully sleeping on a wooden chair. They walked amidst tall columns and came towards a dimmed corner.
“I am sure your book will be a great success,” he said.
A medusa head stood at a stone’s throw from them. The young man’s gaze rested on a brick on the ground. It lay a few inches left to the statue, silent, heavy and mysterious.
“And why on earth did you have to steal it?”
“Why on earth did I have to steal what?”
“Why on earth did you have to steal my book?”
“I know you did. I read your book.”
“I know you didn’t. No one else could have read it beside me.”
“That was what I thought about my own book.”
“Who read it?”
But he was not convinced and therefore thought it his right to pick up the brick from the ground and cast it forcefully down on his friend’s brow. Instantly it was covered with blood and a bruise that resembled the letter X appeared just above his friend’s hazel eyes. Blood, he thought. This is blood. And that is the letter X.
Turning his back to the statue as if out of shyness, he pushed the body into the invisible stream. He guessed there were no cameras in the place. Even if they existed, the darkness would surely conceal him.
Outside the cistern, he walked into a thick layer of fog. The waiter was still attending the same table. But now it was occupied by an elderly tourist couple.
He walked around his friend’s apartment, looking up to his flat to see whether there were any shadows moving around. There was nothing there. Their meeting places, once heavy with significance, now lacked meaning entirely. Faces he saw in the ferry failed to interest him.
In Haydarpaşa Station, a train was just leaving for Kars, the most eastern city he could wish for. It was a night train called the “Eastern Express”. The journey would take thirty eight hours. It was perfect.
He ordered a cup of coffee. The trees were tall and they disappeared fast. He took out the envelope. It was a great opening, with the first sentences so carefully polished. They promised excitement, mystery and beauty. He recited those words and believed for a moment that they were his own.
When the doors of the cistern were closed that evening, the security guards joked about the incident. A young man was attacked, thrown into the water. On his brow there was a slight bruise. The assailant had escaped and the security cameras revealed his frantic movements.
“Look at this,” one guy said to the other. “He thinks he has committed a crime.”
“It is surely a crime to attack someone in the cistern, isn’t it?”
“But the boy didn’t complain.”
“Would I what?”
“Would you complain?”
“No,” he said while successfully suppressing a yawn, “but I never complain.”
* * *
The young man woke up in Kars. There was snow on the pavements. A group of straw dogs patrolled the streets. He looked around and felt lonely. Smoking a Camel at a little tea place, he wrote a letter to his friend’s mother.
I hope you can forgive me for what I have done. It was a most terrible crime. I am now living in Kars and I have no intention of resisting arrest. But you should understand that your son also committed a crime. He stole my idea. He made it his own. He should have asked me and maybe I would have given it to him. I am so sorry for what I did. I am enclosing some money with this letter. Feel free to use it for funeral arrangements.
But it was his friend who received the letter—his mother had gone shopping. Another letter came with the same post. It announced that the novel would be published next year, and that its author would receive a substantial advance in a few months’ time. It was great news, things couldn’t be better. He took a pen.
I am no book thief. Had I decided to steal a book, it wouldn’t be yours. I wonder what exactly it was that you had in that notebook, what precious ideas it contained. But I didn’t open it that day for I expected you to show your ideas to me yourself. You’ve never been frank with me about what you wrote, but that never made me want to steal your ideas.
I wish you all the luck in Kars. Surely you will be out of money quite soon. I will send a cheque for you when you need it.
But I warn you. You should NEVER write to my mother again.
* * *
The letter X disappeared from his brow in a fortnight’s time. There were no more letters either from the editor, the publisher or the assailant. He spent his days in solitude, adding a sentence to his novel, removing a comma from one of the chapters. He felt himself to be an already established author but he was also concerned about whether his book would really be published as scheduled.
A few weeks later a much anticipated envelope appeared in his mother’s hand. But the news was strange and most unexpected.
“What is this?” she asked before handing it to him. “It says there is a problem with your novel. Some of its pages are illegible. How could you send it in such poor quality? What would you do if they changed their mind and cancel the publication?”
“It must be a problem with my printer. It is not the most terrible thing in the world, you know. I will just print those pages again and send them to him first thing tomorrow.”
“Something isn't right here,” she said.
* * *
His journey seemed to take many days but it was the same thirty eight hour voyage from Istanbul to Kars. The Eastern Express was having one of its crowded days. The passenger was stuck in between two elderly ladies and neither little villages nor the great Anatolian mountains gave him comfort.
That morning, he had decided to find a way of showing how frank he was to his friend. He made it his task to convince him about three things. First, he had never stolen any ideas from him. Second, he had never set eyes on that notebook. And third: because of a childhood trauma which involved his mother’s wallet, he was categorically incapable of stealing things.
But these were easier said than done. His friend was one of those skeptics who could sense falsity and lies from a great distance. As the train went into a tunnel he remembered that day in which the figure of his friend silently moved away from him. The notebook was there, silent and remote.
The city square now looked similar to that notebook and he wasn’t sure at first about whether he should walk around it or just have lunch in one of the dimmed restaurants on the side streets.
Afterwards he picked a tea place at random and went inside. There a young Kurdish man was walking around with a cigarette in his mouth—he wasn’t allowed to smoke it indoors but he could at least mime with it—whose gaze followed him as he sat down behind one of the tables; and there, just opposite him, the figure of his friend appeared, shuffling a pack of cards.
“Come here and play with us,” he said without holding up his head.
On the green tablecloth there was a large ashtray and he took it from there and looked at his reflection on its rusty surface. While those rugged cards were being landed on his, side one after the other, he realized that the Kurdish man had stopped miming and joined them for the game.
“Is this one of your friends?” he said.
“He is the thief,” came the reply.
“Ah, that one.” The older man picked his cards and seemed as if he knew beforehand which figures they contained. “Shame on you, brother,” he said. “You should be hanged, you know. I am a writer myself and I know the importance of putting oneʼs trust in someone. This young boy here trusted you with his life. How could you steal his ideas? What happened to your conscience?”
* * *
The young man had been staying in a nice room with a large balcony where he could watch the city in the evenings with a glass of wine in hand. He said he was happy to share this moment with him and that he was also happy to look at this city that quickly became such a source of inspiration for him.
It was with a certain anxiety, a feeling of being caught, that the mature writer heard a knocking on the door. His friend immediately got up from his chair and, leaving the bottle with him, said: “There comes our friend. You will love this.”
A tall girl, perhaps a few years his senior, entered the balcony. She was wearing jeans and sneakers and seemed as if she could be a writer herself. But in less than an hour, as his friend kissed and touched her a few meters away from him, he understood that writing could not be her main occupation. She was there to serve them and, with a strange sense of duty, she did serve both of them, in a manner that was perhaps planned beforehand by his young friend.
He had never done such a thing before. But in a few moments it felt almost natural that they were together on his friend’s little bed, miraculously separated by the warmth of the young girl. He kissed her and felt her breasts and smelled her cheap perfume and his hand ran through her long brown hair. His friend was silent and invisible behind her and moved there like a ghost, very carefully and discreetly. As he entered her, he felt it necessary to close his eyes and try not to think about his existence. But he was there, doing things similar to what he did, and the girl somehow managed to make both of them feel special.
The morning came earlier than he expected and, when he got out of the bed, his young friend was enjoying the sun in the balcony. He sat next to him and asked how he felt.
“Ah, I feel just fine. I’ve been writing all week and it all went well. And the sun, look at the sun, it’s beautiful isn’t it?”
He wanted to apologize for what he thought he did, but it was one of those moments in his life where doing and thinking about things were quite separate affairs. So he said nothing and didn’t want to talk about his book either. He didn’t want to say or prove anything as it was enough just to share this moment of frankness with him—this moment where they no longer needed, or wanted, to talk.
The young man went inside and he could hear him talking with the girl. The bed was enveloped in darkness and he wondered whether he could be seen from there. The sun was all over him, he realized, burning his brow, and the old bruise there seemed to reappear, a witness to their past. There were murmurs coming from inside but then they disappeared as well. For a moment or two he looked at the month-old newspapers on the table and a notebook was also there, with a brown cover and numerous notes hanging out of its pages. He put his hand on it and waited to see what would happen next.
Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His work has been featured in the Guardian, Index on Censorship, Guernica Magazine and Songlines. He has also written for the Millions and the London Review of Books websites. L'Avventura (Macera), his first novel, was published in Turkey in 2008.