What makes us who we are? Suppose that Theseus, the mythical founder and king of Athens, was survived by his famous, battle-tested ship, and that someone with a sense of history or enterprise placed it in a museum. Over time, the materials the ship was built of would begin to decay, and the museum curator might reinforce an old board there, or place a new screw here; replace this beam for a better-polished one and that figurehead with a more illustrative replica. Eventually, the ship will be made of entirely new parts — is it then the same ship, this thought experiment asks? And suppose that some great restorative technology was later introduced that allowed all the old, worn out parts to be restored to their original condition — well, in that case, is the ship made with these new-old parts be the real original ship? Or would the one on display, reconstructed one slow piece at a time, still count?
This puzzle might keep you up at night, especially when you apply it to your selfhood. We all gain and discard matter all the time, from the cells in our bodies which die and regenerate, to the memories we make and lose every day. Labyrinth, Turkish author Burhan Sönmez’s fourth novel, translated by Ümit Hussein, is deeply concerned with how memory and the body — and the links between them — define us.
Boratin, Labyrinth‘s protagonist, wakes up on the novel’s first page realizing that he is no longer in the hospital but back at home — whatever “home” means. Only a few days ago, he woke up in the hospital after an attempted suicide, having shockingly survived the 200+ foot fall from the Bosphorus Bridge. He also has no memory of this or any other event from his life, an amnesia that has destroyed his entire conception of himself — but has left him with language, a confused sense of time, and vague memories of films, names of singers, sports teams, and other minutiae. So when he wakes up at home, in the apartment largely furnished by the landlady who once lived there, Boratin doesn’t feel much comfort at being in his own bed. How could it be his own, anyway, when as far as he can remember, this is his first night sleeping in it?
While Boratin was once known as a handsome, kind, and heady blues singer in his late 20s living in Istanbul, he no longer has much attachment to any of these aspects of his identity. Mostly, he’s confused, especially since no one else seems to be taking the memory loss as seriously as he is. Even the doctor he’s supposed to talk to — presumably a psychologist — is more focused on Boratin recognizing his blessings so that he doesn’t attempt suicide again: “The journalists who praise you by likening your music to your face have a point. Those good looks alone are enough to live for.” She isn’t the only one who reacts in ways that make light, intentionally or not, of Boratin’s plight.
Over the course of this subtle, quiet novel, Boratin wanders and has conversations with friends who try to reassure him that he was a good man, a good friend, prior to his memory loss. Mostly, though, he thinks about what he’s going through, tries to reconcile who he was with who he is, the past feelings he cannot access with those he can — for instance, he senses something familiar in Bessie Smith’s singing, and he knows he loves his sister but not why.
The overarching metaphor that makes the novel avoid entirely solipsistic concerns seems to be that Boratin is demonstrative, perhaps, of what a society could be if it forgot its past as well as all the things it couldn’t. What tightly-wrapped shackles does the past create, and would losing the latter loosen the former? But this metaphor doesn’t entirely hold water, for Boratin is uniquely situated to think about himself in a way many individuals, never mind societies, cannot: He is independently wealthy, and his friends and his sister are all patient and loyal and willing to help him through this difficult time without giving up on this man who both is and isn’t who they once knew.
Boratin’s unstable identity is entirely believable and often stirring, and the narrative’s moves between first and second person, sometimes within the same chapter, certainly press home his dissociation. But Sönmez seems to shy away from some of the most interesting existential questions he asks: Boratin’s is deeply worried about what harm he might have caused that he now can’t remember, for instance, but everyone reassures him of his always impeccable behavior; Boratin wonders why he keeps being urged to be patient with his memory, but also never appears to be trying to rush himself. These narrative decisions made me wonder — how is Boratin’s permission to dwell in such mediations tied to his positioning in the world?
A thoughtful novel that asks many unanswerable questions worth pondering, Labyrinth is a mind-twister that may leave some wanting more.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.