‘The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep’ by Steven Heighton

Reviewed by Mark Sampson

It felt somewhat apropos to be reading Steven Heighton’s new novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, just a few weeks after video emerged in May of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s supporters and dark-suited bodyguards kicking the crap out of protesters outside the Turkish Embassy on U.S. soil. The assault, which occurred during Erdoğan’s official Washington visit to U.S. President Donald Trump, was a graphic reminder that authoritarianism – fueled by the fragile egos of power-drunk leaders – is very much alive and, well, kicking in the contemporary world. If Turkey had been, over the last number of years, dallying with the idea of Western liberalism, with such quaint values as freedom of peaceful assembly, the flirtation ended with a national referendum this past April that placed more power directly into Erdoğan’s hands. This atmosphere of entitled dictatorship permeates the air of Heighton’s book, set on the divided island of Cyprus where Turkey’s iron fist in an iron glove still holds sway.

The particulars: Greek-Canadian soldier Elias Trifannis is sent to Cyprus by the Canadian military for some rest and recovery following a traumatic stint in Afghanistan. During an evening at a hotel bar, he meets and courts a radical Turkish journalist named Eylül while a group of Turkish soldiers, who assume that Elias is Greek, looks on in fury. When the couple leaves the bar and begins a sexual tryst on a nearby beach, the soldiers (who no doubt would’ve felt quite comfortable participating in the brutality of the video above) follow and then attack them. There are bad hook-ups, and then there are bad hook-ups. By the end, Eylül has been shot and hospitalized, and the injured Elias has fled for his life under the barbed wire that cordons off the abandoned resort town of Varosha, deserted since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

The story is bifurcated then into two third-person perspectives: that of Elias’s, as he explores the eerie, frozen-in-time, almost Ballardian landscapes of Varosha, and discovers that a ragtag group of refugees still inhabits the place; and that of Erkan Kaya, a colonel in the Turkish army whose role is of a pampered, privileged colonial administrator desperate to maintain the status quo of the area. To save face for his soldiers involved in Elias and Eylül’s attack, Kaya concocts a delightfully Trumpian bit of fake news: he claims that Elias was trying to rape the girl on that beach, and his men heroically intervened and accidentally shot her. Spoiler alert: When Eylül emerges from her coma and begins to contradict this narrative, Kaya simply has her murdered in a suspicious “traffic accident” outside the hospital after she’s been released. He does these heinous acts in between tennis matches and enjoying sumptuous lunches served by his private cook Ömer and dreaming of destroying two nearby historic hotels so that he can get more sunlight on his private beach. Kaya is, in essence, a wonderful portrait of authoritarian privilege and sloth.

Elias, meanwhile, learns more about the chilling “dead zone” that is Varosha as he lays low with some of its residents. These include a young, widowed woman named Kaiti, whom he takes to seducing, as well as a former UN peacekeeper named Roland and an ex-member of Greece’s Special Forces unit named Stratis. As word emerges of how Kaya is spinning the story of the attack in the Turkish-Cypriot media, and then of Eylül’s mysterious death outside the hospital, Elias comes to better understand the fraught dynamics of both his own Greek heritage and how Turkey still holds relentless sway over the island of Cyprus.

Matters are complicated by the presence of Colonel Kaya’s great foil in this novel, an army captain named Polat. Unlike Kaya, Polat is ambitious and driven to have Turkey exert even more force over the area. After a year-long tour of duty on the Syrian frontier, Polat returns to Cyprus promoted to the same rank as Kaya – that of colonel – and grows anxious to disrupt his rival’s cushy existence and root out Elias and his friends from the “dead zone” once and for all.

What unfolds, then, is less a quiet rumination on the schisms that continue to divide Cyprus, and more a taut, expertly rendered literary thriller. Heighton is in full command of his material here, capable of balancing his characterization, diptych points of view, braided themes, and tense plot points with an assured hand – all with sentences that hum off the page. Here’s a typically rhythmic passage, from a section focused on Polat:

He knows how much he owes to that fraudulent idler Erkan Kaya. During Polat’s trial by tennis, and afterward in the ruins of Varosha, he learned once and for all: will and integrity are not enough. The best general in the world is helpless without a body of troops to serve him; likewise, Polat’s will requires the support of a strong physique. He has one now. Yet he hates this improved one almost as much as he hated the old. His will—the only part of himself he truly values—is elsewhere, up ahead, boldly advancing into a future of conquered goals. In the end, of course, the future also means death—at least to the body, fit or unfit—but where’s the terror in that? Death is everyone’s final achievement. What matters is achieving it well, with dignity, pride, and no fear.

Indeed, Heighton remains a rare beast here in Canada: a skilled poet (he won the 2016 Governor General’s Award for his most recent collection, The Waking Comes Late) who refuses to write his equally accomplished fiction in “poet voice.” You can paw through all 330 dense pages of The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep and find not a single purple phrase or empty poeticism.

Of course, the novel’s greatest strength – and I am joining the chorus of its other reviewers here – is the character of Kaya himself. He is utterly inspired in his slothful, sclerotic desire not to upend the privilege and indolence he enjoys at the pleasure of Turkey’s long dance with totalitarianism. In fact, one can imagine the colonel watching the video of that real-life attack on protesters, shrugging his shoulders at the natural order that violence must maintain, and then skipping off to another invigorating tennis match in the Cypriot sun.

Hamish Hamilton│352 pages│$24.95│paperISBN #978-0735232563



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