Sunday, May 14, 2017

Dead City: Steven Heighton’s The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

Author Steven Heighton.

“Any war goes on destroying lives for a lifetime.” Steven Heighton, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep
In the early 1970s the beach resort of Varosha was the jewel of Cyprus’s east coast, a destination for the global jet set until the Turkish invasion of 1974. The Turkish authorities never allowed the shop owners and local population to return after they had fled. Fenced off and decaying, the city turned into a ghost town. Varosha is the major setting for the Canadian novelist and award-winning poet Steven Heighton’s fourth novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep (Hamish Hamilton, 2017). Its alluring locale that combines “dead hotels” in a “topiary city made of vines, wild grape and bougainvillea” is one of the most memorable features of the novel.

Elias Triffanis, a Canadian of Greek descent, who joined the military in an attempt to endear himself to his dying father, has been sent to Cyprus on trauma leave; he is suffering from post–traumatic stress after his recent tour of Kandahar ended with the controversial killing of innocent villagers. The facility is intended to treat personnel largely with rest, medication and counselling. It has at best mixed results -- Elias expends most of his energy trying to stay awake to avoid the devastating dreams and screams he hears from other inmates. He travels to the east coast to visit relatives. There he meets a Turkish journalist named Eylul in a bar under the watchful eyes of a handful of Turkish soldiers. When they depart for a tryst on the beach, they are followed and attacked. Badly injured, Elias is forced to abandon Eylul, who he believes is dead, and drags himself under the fence. There he is rescued and offered sanctuary in the crumbling city of Varosha, where he encounters a motley crew of exiles, refugees and misfits surviving off the still-ample tinned foods and toilet paper appropriated from the surrounding derelict lodgings. They include the Greek Kaiti, who arrived a few years earlier pregnant with twins with her now-departed Turkish husband, and Roland, an ex-UN German peacekeeper who deserted his unit and is still haunted by a violent incident in Cyprus. They care for the injured Elias, whose plan is to recover, then slip away. When news arrives that Eylul is alive and recovering in hospital and that he is accused of raping her but is considered dead, everything changes for Elias. He becomes a virtual prisoner of the community; if it becomes known that he is alive, the Turkish forces will go looking for him and might expose the secret enclave. From what I have outlined of the plot, it would appear that a central motif of the novel would be the tension between official and authentic versions. But that would be simplistic. 

In reality there is a symbiotic relationship between the community and Erkan Kaya, the debonair Turkish colonel, who is fully aware of both the dwellers in the restricted zone and Elias’s presence there and is willing to allow the colony to exist as long as it does not threaten his cozy position as commander of the Turkish forces in Cyprus, a priority which explains why he is the author of the official version, or, in today’s parlance, fake news. Maintaining the cover story about Elias and Eylul is in both his best interest and that of the community exiles. Kaya aims to sustain his sybaritic lifestyle: the enjoyment of the sun, tennis and his carnal pleasures. He appears to be a corrupt rogue who manipulates the truth, but he is the most developed and interesting character in the novel. He regrets the dissolution of his marriage and looks forward to visits from his two teenage children. Moreover, he is an affable, decent human being who wants to maintain the status quo: keep his military out of the dead city and avoid a bloodletting.

This delicate balance is threatened by Captain Polat, an adjutant of Kaya, who does not believe the cover story and is determined to rout Elias out of the dead zone. Initially, Polat appears as a two-dimensional character obsessed with the honour of the Turks, who enjoys reading a sympathetic biography of the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, and is a stand-in for the current pugnacious Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Kaya at one point associates with Polat. Yet as we learn more about Polat, his personal background and his determination to transform himself, we can develop a greater understanding of him -- while disagreeing with his ideological rigidity and impulsive behaviour, especially what he does after his interview with Eylul, a leftist critic of the regime, who cares little for Turkish honour and everything about the truth. Although a deeply flawed character, Polat is not a caricature.

Polat’s counterpart among the disparate group residing in Varosha is the firebrand Stratis Kourakis, formerly of the Greek Special Forces, who has put himself in charge of the community’s security. He is portrayed as a more two-dimensional character, an ethnic nationalist obsessed with blood purity and revenge for the deaths of his wife and a comrade. He looks askance at the mixed-heritage twins and he is contemptuous of the mild-mannered Elias, who, as a result of living in America (Stratis cannot distinguish between an American and a Canadian), believes that his “blood has so thinned, [he doesn’t] know how to hate anymore.” Roland could be talking about Stratis when he laments that zealots “intoxicate the crowd and fool them into doing the work that a bloody dream demands.” Heighton’s rendering of the “goaty-smelling” Stratis verges on being a stereotype.

It is Elias who remains the central protagonist who, once he realizes that he must remain in the colony for some time, begins the process of healing that was not possible at the medical facility even though he was treated by a sympathetic physician. I want to offer a sample of Heighton’s precise writing, his description of a moment when Elias begins to feel the pain not only of his recent experience in Afghanistan but what preceded it: “He sobs, shakes and chokes, he hears himself making unearthly sounds, dying animal sounds, and his attempts to control and muffle them only intensify the attack. He has to give in. As if a lifetime’s quota of grief, loneliness and regret has been concentrated into one cataclysm, he weeps until his eyes swell shut and he lies still and emptied on the floor.” As a poet, Heighton has a penchant for the metaphorical. Sometimes it works effectively as, for example, his description on the beach near the beginning when the Turkish police shine the “Cyclopean eye of the flashlight” on Elias and Eylul. Throughout, his writing is vividly evocative both of the natural setting and of character, and above all it is richly lyrical, a prose that demands that the reader take his time to savour the language. 

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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