TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 3.3. Globalization, Transnational Literatures, and Cross-Cultural Understanding
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Atilla Silkü (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Garbage as the Global Metaphor of Human Imperfection:
A Transnational Study of Latife Tekin’s Berji Kristin:
Tales from the Garbage Hills
and Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things

Yesim Ersoy (Dokuz Eylul University, Izmir, Turkey) [BIO]



This paper examines the parallel aspects of two urban communities as imagined by an American and a Turkish author in their novels, In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster and Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills by Latife Tekin. Though set in different geographical locations, both works of fiction lack disturbingly the welcoming and familiar sights of a modern civilized city, and share comparable visions of impermanence and decay. Published in 1987, Auster’s novel depicts the story of a young protagonist, Anna Blume journeying in the devastated streets of a post-apocalyptic city, most likely New York, full of wretched urbanites trying to survive on the material wastes of their own collapsed civilization. Similarly, Tekin’s novel published in 1984, portrays the endurance story of a slum community living on the chaotic margins of a Turkish metropolis, possibly Istanbul, and transforming garbage into a vague means of resource and hope. Prefaced by John Berger, Tekin’s novel is translated from the Turkish by Ruth Christie and Saliha Paker and published in 1993. Regardless of the national borders and cultural differences, both novels make a critique of contemporary urban life and consumer societies through the metaphorical use of “garbage.” Garbage becomes the epitome of “impurity” of human existence on earth and the “flaw” in civilization: it underscores the failure of the modernist ideals of urbanization and industrialization, which, for the last two centuries, have nourished man’s faith in progress and prosperity as well as creation of a perfect society.

Glorification of spatial expansiveness and structural gigantism of the built environment, as embodied in the American metropolis, often refers to a modernist ideal of urbanization and modern identity, and assigns an imperial, monstrous, and almost a totalitarian quality to the urban land. Describing the modern capitalist metropolis as “generically vast, overwhelming, anonymous, and chaotic” (5), Gerd Hurm assumes the difficulty of prescribing common constituents for urban space. According to Hurm, to produce a generic definition for modern city is an initiative too divergent and contradictory to fabricate a single unified map. “In the twentieth century,” he says, “‘urban’ may denote vastness, density, heterogeneity, alienation, artificiality, impersonality and impenetrability; it may suggest narrowness, enclosure, sameness, deprivation, and constriction; but it may also mean homogeneity, cohesion, community, and embeddedness, or signify tolerance, openness, anarchism, and freedom” (4). Given this wide range of attributes defining the city, contemporary urban writer seems to stand at the crossroads of a burdensome choice: he would either attempt to include them all in a broad multifaceted urban imagery, or acknowledge the impossibility of the task and let each component fall off until the fragmentation is complete. Paul Auster and Latife Tekin, two writers from two distinct cultures have chosen the latter.

Auster’s city in In the Country of Last Things is a “city of destruction” or a rotten “city-state” turned into a dystopia unable to detach itself from the massive troubles arresting the nation where civilization has almost vanished. Anna Blume enters the city from the east after a long voyage, which strongly suggests the place to be New York. Anna is in search for her long-lost brother, William, a journalist, sent to the city to “get the story” (28), and gather information about the ways of living in the city. She begins scavenging by a supermarket trolley, is offered accommodation in an old crumbling house by Isabel and reluctantly by her husband Frederick. After Isabel’s death she meets a writer, Samuel Farr in a decayed library building where a number of Jews accommodate, and two of them become lovers.(1) She helps him with his book and gets pregnant, which is very unusual for the ones living in the city, but loses her baby when she jumps off the window of a slaughterhouse to save her life. She is found by a man called Frick and brought to Woburn House for recovery — a place of charity run by Victoria Woburn, the last member of a once-wealthy family. Anna joins the house folk, whose work is to feed and heal those in need of help by the way of selling the family commodities. There she meets with Sam again, and both prepare to leave the city for an uncertain future.

The plot of Tekin’s Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills, on the other hand, is highly episodic, with each chapter devoted to a different episode, except that there is no central character journeying through the episodes and interconnecting them. Instead, episodes are loosely and randomly entwined around a variety of character types, and the only linear movement toward a unifying conclusion is the physical and demographic growth of the shanty-town into a social maturity. The growth is slow but steady, and in the scattered course of events, reader observes the typical evolution of a slum community, its partial integration into the urban setting, and finally splitting up into two neighborhoods.  

In her novel, Tekin gives the reader a short historical account of a fictional shanty-town, namely Flower Hill, in terms of a frantic social comedy. Inhabitants of Tekin’s city are dwarfed and distorted in the vast panorama of urban ruins extending miserably at the outskirts of “big city” where the territory no longer bears any familiar signs of civilization or claims any commitment to law, but offers only a bleak urban wilderness. As a matter of fact, the only recognizable look that this chaotic topography may display is the look that will be imprinted by the shanty-town dwellers, whether it may be that of hope or dismay. Though Tekin’s clownish characters make the slapstick of staying alive in spite of all physical constrictions and frustrations, the enduring sentiments in both novels are gloom and futility — especially the futility of man’s willpower and hard work as represented by the Sisyphus myth: just like Sisyphus the King who is punished and cursed eternally to roll a huge rock up a hill only to see it roll down again, the huts erected by “squatters” with the bits and pieces obtained from the garbage hills are each time pulled down with the arrival of “huge trucks” and “wreckers” the next day. The ongoing struggle between the “wreckers” and “hut people” becomes a curious show for “scavengers,” whose lives are also shaped by the garbage.

Similarly in Auster’s novel, nothing is stable in the city including the houses, streets and inhabitants, for they may disappear the moment you turn your back on them: “These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. … Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing before you is suddenly gone. … Once a thing is gone, that’s the end of it” (Auster 1-2). The nature of reality in this world is also problematic: “Just because you are able to get in, that does not mean you will be able to get out. Entrances do not become exits, and there is nothing to guarantee that the door you walked through a moment ago will still be there when you turn around” (85). 

The narrator underlines the sense of flux and transience further by the futility of eating, for no matter how much you eat, you will feel hungry again: “Thinking about food too much can only lead to trouble. … [People] prowl the streets at all hours scavenging for morsels, taking enormous risks for even the smallest crumb. No matter how much they are able to find, it will never be enough” (3-4).  Even the ferocious and gusting wind in the city is the metonymy of the instability and impermanence—that it blows away everything and everybody, especially thin people, who therefore “[move] about in twos and threes, sometimes whole families, bound together by ropes and chains, to ballast one another against the blast” (3). Similarly in Berji Kristin, wind becomes the symbol of the unwelcoming land, vulnerability of man, as well as the sense of futility and impermanence:

There was no lack of wind to tear the roofs off the shacks. … And when the wind blew very hard the squatters climbed out on the roofs and lay down flat to stop them taking off. … Meanwhile “stoning the wind” became a custom. … But stoning the wind was useless. … [Wind] lifted walls off the ground, caught women and children in the street and blew them over. … The trees on Flower Hill grew sideways instead of upwards. (Tekin 32-33)

In both novels, characters seem to stay on the brink of bare survival and can preserve a minor sense of integrity only in accordance with their ability to find the “usable” garbage they need to make a living. In Auster’s city where industrial manufacture and human reproduction have come to a full end, broken objects are regularly collected by scavengers and sold to Resurrection Agents in return for a few glots — currency used in the city — to be repaired and transformed into useful merchandise. Under the tyrannical rule of frequently changing governments, the act of reusing or recycling has reached to grim and cruel dimensions, such as using human waste and corpses as fuel and transforming them into energy — contrary practices are severely punished. Ironically enough, the only service that governments can provide in Auster’s decimated city is the one dealing with garbage — collecting the dead and human waste left on the streets. Beyond this routine performance extends a lawless hysterical place where robbery, fraud, and bribery are regarded as common activities; private ownership and tenancy are practically impossible due to street gangs; food and any other merchandise is extremely expensive because of absence of agrarian or industrial production; and living are slaughtered and sold as food.

Correspondingly in Tekin’s novel, garbage plays the central role in the emergence of life up on a desolate hill. The shanty-town is seated on no-man’s land, where the only topographical feature is garbage mounds that are keenly transformed into walls, roofs, curtains, beds, bedcovers, and a wide range of other household utensils by the newcomers: “By evening, Rubbish Road had become a road of bricks and blocks and pitch paper. … Next morning, by the garbage heaps … a complete neighborhood was fathered by mud and chemical waste, with roofs of plastic basins, doors from old rugs, oilcloth windows and walls of wet breezeblocks” (16). Nothing is omitted in the wicked and barren geography of slum area, but used craftily after found in garbage. This rustic vigor and “creative” impulse of Tekin’s “hut people,” combined with local legends, customs and rituals they create to come to terms with the land they inhabit, is sadly missing in the “city people” of Auster. Owing largely to this zealous spirit and the magical tricks that the land plays on man, Tekin’s narrative steps beyond the customary frames of a survival theme and suggests that of a “creation myth,” while Auster’s novel is articulated in the dire atmosphere of a “survival story” rendering the closure of civilization upon its makers and a handful of people trying to escape the impending doom.(2)  

The act of recycling and reprocessing urban waste is the unifying ritual and the common daily practice of the urbanites in both Auster and Tekin. Especially in Auster, collecting garbage is the only meaningful act people can perform to communicate with their immediate environment and achieve a sense of “familiarity” and “belonging” to the land, which in fact, has nothing to offer to its inhabitants except their own wastes. The incapacity to “produce” a new viable meaning apart from recycling the old ironically becomes the only “productive” action indicating an error in the course of civilization and the common disease of “modern” societies.

Both writers epitomize the failure of modernist writer’s search for meaning in the universe by acknowledging that the novel, as a literary genre focusing on the “conflict between individual and environment” (Hurm 2), is indeed an “expression of transcendental homelessness” — a condition identified by Georg Lukacs in Theory of the Novel as questioning the status of modern city and identity of modern man as well as the novel and the social values it represents. This transcendental homelessness which cancels any lasting possibility for meaning in “man-created environments” is what both Tekin and Auster in their city writing try to reveal as the dominant sentiment of the novel.

The funny tone of Tekin’s depiction of the poor, when combined with the hostility of the land they inhabit, is actually to ridicule the culture of realism and its ways to express the crude reality of the moment. She animates the inner poetry of local color fiction and comes up with a quasi-epic mode of narration with strong references to the playful styles of oral literatures, folk tales and oral folklore, and vernacular uses of language. The plot is very typical of local color fiction where “nothing really happens” except the chain of weakly connected episodes revolving around the habits of community and its rituals. Although the “nostalgia” for a past golden age is absent in Tekin’s local color writing, she preserves the ancient rural spirit inherent in the hut people. Set on the remote forbidding periphery of a modern Turkish metropolis, her portrayal of social distress and depravity in the shanty town, is rendered in an amazing framework where “pain” no longer gives pain but becomes the hilarious parody of the social machinery, and characters of the slum community are presented as the fools of an allegory speaking for the late twentieth century urbanization in the developing countries—the fools who make fun of the human management strategies called civilization.

Berji Kristin is a secular creation myth that tells about the birth pangs of a shanty-town, its becoming a “community” and “neighborhood” where social roles diversify along with the growth of its population until the town is formally acknowledged by bureaucratic authorities. In parallel with the conventions of regional or local color literature, characters in the book strike us more likely as stereotypes rather than “individuals” who lack psychological depth. The social tapestry of slum neighborhood is composed of a variety of character profiles: Güllü Baba, Kara Hasan, the Liverman, Nylon Mustafa, Garbage Grocer, Kurd Cemal, Bald Ali, Mr. Izak the factory owner, Master Gülbey, factory workers, the Romanies, the Poet Teacher, Honking Alhas the history-teller, Chief Mahmut of the gypsies, Crazy Dursun, Kızılbaş Elders, Mikail the simit-seller, Lado the Gambler, Garbage Chief, Crazy Gönül the prostitude, Hadji Hasan, Şini Erol the sports club president are to name but some. Added to this rich microcosm of social identities, the geographical setting becomes a “character” in itself rising above its human counterparts. As John Berger puts it in the Preface of the book, “Before [Tekin], no shanty-town had entered literature—had entered written narrative—as an entity in itself. If shanty-towns were there, they were there as décor or as social problems. In Tekin’s [book], a shanty-town community becomes the center of the world, holding the stage and addressing the sky” (Tekin 6). In fact, it is not basically the “shanty town” itself but the “garbage hills” in the immediate background that highlight the very origin of the town and underline the imperfection of modern society.

The city in Tekin’s novel is a Gargantuan embodiment(3) growing madly outward and engendering weird and wild forms of residential areas that are threatened by equally crooked industrial quarters, called Hill Industries. This view of urban wilderness indicates the definite failure of the project “modernism” and its promise to fulfill the utopian ideal of social betterment in the lead of reason, science, and technology which have deployed the western mind since the Enlightenment. Enchanted by the sublime glamorous skyline of urban landscapes, modern man is the icon of an elitist delusion. As a matter of fact, garbage acts as the metaphor of human imperfection haunting the modern mind and demystifying the modernist promise by its very existence, thus should be either disregarded and ignored simply as an erroneous surplus of civilization, or systematically removed from the urban scene together with the communities whose lives inescapably depend on garbage.

Both novels portray urban land as “lands of estrangement” where the environment is bizarre and useless, physical conditions are hostile or indifferent, for these are the   landscapes of the dead and broken supported with no social institutions or urban infrastructure. Though Tekin’s settlement gradually achieves a sense of “familiarity” as it socially and physically evolves into a neighborhood, Auster’s city prolongs its “alienating” quality till the very end. Whereas Tekin hails the vision of a newly emerging community who stands chronologically at the start of its becoming, Paul Auster gives the closing stages of man’s journey on the timeline of history. Accordingly in Tekin’s novel, city is depicted as an “expansion” or an “open space” spreading violently outward, whereas Auster’s city is a form of “closure” or “shrinkage” restricting human mobility—note that there are several “gates” of exit to the north, south and west of the city, which are strictly protected by military guards, and can be exited only upon official permission.

In both Auster and Tekin, the world breaks up into neighborhoods, tribes, gangs, parties, ethnic groups, and sects. This anarchy and fragmentation brings a realization of a new diversity that inevitably demands reconciliation.  While a sense of community and social collaboration prevails in Tekin’s Flower Hill, Auster’s citylacks this redeeming quality for collective endeavor completely. However it may be naïve and primitive, this very community feeling is perhaps what endows Tekin’scharacters with the slight promise of rebirth and regeneration, while Auster’s book remains in the twilight zone of a ravage and fall. Yet both writers denounce the urban settlement as the place of decay and doom. As Ihab Hassan puts it, “Dionysus has entered the city” (396): the corruption and unrest soon become common occurrences in Flower Hill, including riots, demonstrations, street fights, quarrels, as well as swindling, theft, gambling, fraud and prostitution.

Though the nature of the catastrophe that practically ended the civilization in Auster’s book has been knowingly blurred to intensify the sense of mystery, the reader is well aware that the devastation is too radical and damaging to expect any recovery or restitution. Strangely enough, few remarks are made on pre-catastrophe social condition, and the narrator Anna Blume carefully avoids any mythologizing of the past. In a non-technological, non-industrial world where nothing can be produced and “babies refuse to be born” (Auster 7), she rather lets her body move forward in the dreary habitual cycles of collecting and recycling garbage with rest of the people, and focuses on how to utilize the debris of previous civilization. Thus she achieves a state of minimalism to keep alive: “I put one foot in front of the other, and then the other in front of the first, and then hope I can do it again. … I move. I breathe what air is given to me. I eat as little as I can” (2). Anna’s minimalist strategy openly ridicules the modern consumer society and makes a critique of “today’s waste addicted culture.”(4)

Yet there is a slight hint for hope for those who read beneath the surface chaos. Patricia Merivale in her article “The Austerized Version,” speaks of Auster’s “Beckettian view of the dubious and partial triumph of art over chaos,” and supports her point by Christophe Metress’s statements (190). According to Metress, Anna Blume is the “Beckettian artist” and “she makes art, by imagination, out of junk” (160). It is the gift of imagination that separates Anna from rest of the scavengers in the city and saves her from an inevitable doom. Demarcating Anna’s urban experience as a “junk artist” or “scavenger-flâneur” (160), Metress makes a reference to Charles Baudelaire’s perception of “modern artist” as a “passionate spectator” of the city. Traditionally denoting pedestrian environment, “flâneur” in Baudelaire’s words means “gentleman stroller of city streets,” who is an eternal “fugitive” and always on move, and has a central role in understanding, participating in and portraying the urban phenomenon. In Baudelaire’s theorization of the term “flâneur,” the artist walks the city in order to observe and experience it, as Anna does in her day-long scavenging explorations among the garbage hills and urban ruins.(5) Anna’s artistic role in creating “meaning” from “junk” is further emphasized by her unexpected pregnancy in the midst of despair and her act of writing in a scrappy notebook—she narrates the whole book in the form of an epistolary-memoir addressed presumably to a beloved or a childhood friend whom she left behind before coming to the city and whose name and status has never been given.

Similar to Anna’s “junk art” becoming her saving virtue, Tekin’s “Berji girls” are the symbols of harmony, placidity, and cooperation:

Back in the village the community shepherd girls who used to milk the sheep that grazed out in the summer pastures at night were called “Berji girls” by the community who held the job … in high esteem. A girl’s upbringing was measured by the way she went about milking the sheep. … On Flower Hill, only the girls who picked over the refuse were considered worthy of the name and awarded such praise.  (Tekin 31-32)

The art of regenerating life out of garbage—out of the dead and broken—is the common underlying theme in both books. Children of the Flower Hill play with “plastic baby dolls with broken legs and heads” they find in the rubbish heap (31). Women look in the “cracked fancy mirrors” and “[comb] their hair with the combs from the garbage” and “flies from the refuse [settle] on their hair” (31). Likewise, the gypsies populating the hills decorate the interiors of their cardboard houses “with an assortment of objects retrieved from the garbage.” On the lines “stretched from one corner to another” hang like bunches of grapes the “plastic dolls scavenged from the garbage, their hair and arms torn off,” and “old fashion magazines thrown on the refuse heaps [are] stuck up on the cardboard walls,” and the “rest of the spaces [are] adorned with colored glossy paper picked from the rubbish” (113).

Taking place in a futuristic nightmare where environment is viciously used up and irrevocably damaged, garbage in Auster’s book also acts as an ecological metaphor, and recycling garbage ironically anticipates an environment-friendly attitude. Huge amounts of rubbish and rubbles in the streets are the remains of civilization, and signify the previous extravagance and decadence as well as the unavoidable decline of human achievements from grandeur into garbage. Thus, underlining the futility of civilization, garbage is the metaphor for wastefulness and wasted lives of modern societies. Perhaps the only way to outdo this sense of futility and overcome the pain of loss is the reductive strategy that Samuel Farr develops when he was waiting for Anna’s return:

I gave up trying to be anyone. … The object of my life was to remove myself from my surroundings, to live in a place where nothing could hurt me anymore.  One by one, I tried to abandon my attachments, to let go of all the things I ever cared about. The idea was to achieve indifference, an indifference so powerful and sublime that it would further protect me further assault. I said good-bye to you, Anna; I said good-bye to the book; I said good-bye to the thought of going home; I even tried to say good-bye to myself. …I [sat] in my corner and [paid] no attention to the world around me. If it hadn’t been for my body—the occasional demands of my stomach, my bowels—I might never have moved again. To want nothing, I kept saying to myself, to have nothing, to be nothing. … In the end, I came close to living the life of a stone.  (Auster 162-63)

This strategy of complete resignation and retreat which brings serenity and sobriety to a world of chaos recalls Anna’s rejection of hunger and her self-habituation to eating and consuming less. While civilization obliges complexity and sophistication, Anna’s counter-experience offers simplicity and plainness. It is this saving grace of minimalism that can simplify the human existence on earth where nothing is wasted or lost in redundancy. The art of reducing life to the bare limits “staying alive” finally yields to peace and relief in the book of Paul Auster. Similarly in Latife Tekin, man’s agglomeration in big cities, his detachment from rural simplicity and agrarian origins brings indulgence, wastefulness and degeneration, which are given as the ills of urbanization turning the feats of civilization into hills of garbage.       


Works Cited



1 Several incidents in the novel, particularly the expulsion of the Jews from the library and the fire demolishing the building, suggest associations with holocaust literature.
2 Latife Tekin’s Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills is considered a good example of Magical Realism in Turkish literature. The setting in the novel gains magical qualities as in folk legends, and plays a domineering role in shaping the character profiles. For detailed information on the critical idiom, see Maggie Ann Bower’s Magic(al) Realism, New York, Routledge, 2004.
3 Modern metropolis in popular critical use is usually paralleled by the image of Gargantua, a giant with insatiable appetite in the famous work of 16th century writer François Rabelais, namely Gargantua and Pantagruel.
4 The phrase is borrowed from the book of journalist and filmmaker Heather Rogers who investigates the roots of today's “waste-addicted culture” and the “waste-stream” in Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, published by the New Press in Fall 2006.
5 In Baudelaire’s worldview, the “flâneur” is also associated with the idler and the nonproductive aesthete. Aesthete, lexically meaning “lover of beauty, especially in the arts,” may not exactly express Anna’s terms of mobility in the city, that are purely for the sake of mere survival.

3.3. Globalization, Transnational Literatures, and Cross-Cultural Understanding

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For quotation purposes:
Yesim Ersoy: Garbage as the Global Metaphor of Human Imperfection: A Transnational Study of Latife Tekin’s Berji Kristin.Tales from the Garbage Hills and Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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