The stories in Ayşe Papatka Bucak’s collection, The Trojan War Museum, are the kind that force readers to pay close attention—but in a good way, I promise! These stories allude to Ottoman and Turkish history, mid-nineteenth century French art, death customs, Melungeons, the meaning and symbolism of the body, Orientalism, the Trojan war, the Greek gods, terrorism, and so many things. In addition, a lot of the stories interrupt themselves to go off in different directions that are later shown to be directly relevant or, in one case, turn into a snowball of connected ideas. This collection challenged and pleased me. I can’t say that I was entertained, as such, but I feel like these stories made the old mental gears turn a little faster.
Here are some of the stand out stories from the collection:
“The Trojan War Museum.” This story definitely deserves to be the title story because it has so much to say. This story revolves around the way that wars are always accompanied by narratives. There’s a story about how wars start. There’s a story (or stories) about what they mean. There are stories about soldiers’ experiences. The problem with all of these stories is that they never quite capture the truth of what happened. This theme plays out through the efforts of the Greek gods and others to create museums to keep the memory of the Trojan War alive. These museums always fail because they’re just not right. Sometimes the museums are downright fraudulent. Other times, they are too grim to attract visitors to contemplate their artifacts. After reading this story, I have two thoughts. One is that it’s futile to even trying to create an all-encompassing “story” for war. The other is that we can’t help ourselves when it comes to stories; we need them to make sense of everything.
“Little Sister and Emineh.” This story starts by reflecting on Orientalism and exoticism. People from around the world were essentially imported to be gawked at by visitors to the Chicago World Fair, in 1893. Here we follow a Turkish teen, Emineh, whose job is to demonstrate weaving an authentic Turkish carpet. To make the wool last longer, she has to unweave it at night (just like Penelope, in an unvoiced allusion). Emineh’s beauty, especially her hair, mean that she is the target of a lot of unwanted propositions from men and unwanted touching by people who want to touch her hair. Emineh’s kind heart leads her to start looking out for Little Sister, an orphan girl in disguise as a boy. Everyone else in the Turkish party is casually cruel to Little Sister, a distain which Little Sister seems willing to return. To get people to change their minds about Little Sister, Emineh starts to tell stories in which a quirky orphan turns out to be a hero, or at least useful. On top of all this, this story has a gut-punch of an ending.
“A Cautionary Tale.” This story appears early in the collection and, I think, contains important clues about what much of the collection is about. This story is told in two threads. In one, we learn about the rumors and partial history of the “Terrible Turk,” a nineteenth century Turkish wrestler who briefly rose to fame before drowning in a shipwreck. In the other, an unknown person is interrogated by an unknown official. It’s not until the end of the story that we learn why one person is being grilled by another. The interrogator, for most of the story, seems to be curious about what their subject thinks about the tales of the Terrible Turk. Does the subject believe the stories? How do the stories make the subject feel? They refuse to answer “proper questions.” This focus on the subject’s response to the story got me to thinking seriously about what stories can achieve—as well as how rumors can mess with our memory of actual events. These themes come up repeatedly throughout this collection.
If you haven’t spotted it by now, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories is a gold mine for readers who like to look under the hood and think about what makes stories tick. This review doesn’t even scratch the surface of the other themes that come up in the book (mentioned in the first paragraph of this post). I could write a whole series of posts full of my attempts to explicate the stories. But! I will leave that to other readers who are intrigued enough to pick up this collection. I hope there are lot of you out there. This book is absolutely worth the time and mental effort.