Dyspareunia: Or, The Fear of Life (Novel, 2008)

Originally published as Dyspareunia, the novel probes into the depth of every part the word “dyspareunia” is composed of: “dys”, a Latin prefix that indicates “difficulty”, “para”, an ancient Greek word meaning “lying beside”, and “unia” which stands for “union”. Although “dyspareunia” is normally a medical term that is used to define painful intercourse, it disguises various metaphorical meanings in this novel, rather than referring to literal dyspareunia.

Dyspareunia has two main characters: Feraye, a woman who constantly thinks but fears to get into action; and Cem, a man who feels the need to constantly engage in action in order to run away from facing his self and his inner reality. Feraye waits while Cem goes out and searches. Although these characters symbolize opposite attitudes -or, opposite defence mechanisms- towards life, they have something common -loss of someone very dear to them in their early lives, and also, having to shoulder a symbolic heritage, although in different ways-, and with the help of this bond, they become very close friends since childhood, and their friendship becomes something that is surprising and hard to understand for people, as they have very different personalities.

Dyspareunia is the painful union between the world of these characters, as well as each of them’s painful relationship with life. Feraye symbolizes vertical (inner) life whilst Cem symbolizes the horizontal (outer) -the terms would be familiar to any reader of Kaya, and she discusses verticality and horizontality overtly within this novel as well, in a discussion between Feraye and Cem-. Yet, Feraye fails to unite with horizontal life while Cem fails to unite with the vertical, and the novel discusses the way each of them resists against the vertical/horizontal.

Feraye is not interested in anything practical since childhood. She has a passion for archeology -another metaphor for probing the depths/the vertical in the novel-, and she specializes in dead languages after becoming an archeologist. She is an expert in ancient Greek and the title’s etymology in ancient Greek is a reference to her profession as an epigrapher, which cannot find its place in horizontal -and immediate, outer, practical- reality in the novel. The reader’s initial reaction to the title is not being able to relate to it, which is the reaction Feraye gets for her profession and anything she feels passionate about. Feraye struggles in both finding a job -due to the scarcity of open positions related to archeology in today’s Turkey- and keeping her position in the jobs she finds  -As she doesn’t have an assertive character and she fails to protect her rights, she is repeatedly maltreated in her workplaces and she quits them one by one without being able to tell her employers why.

Feraye becomes more and more introversive and eventually, develops a phobia to leave home. When we first meet her in the beginning of the novel, she hasn’t left where she leaves for almost twenty years. She cannot tolerate sound or sunshine; so she lives in a secluded, quite area, in a house within a garden, keeps her curtains firmly closed at all times, and avoids seeing people except few helpers and Cem, who visits her at times during night-time, as they are both nocturnal people, although due to opposite reasons. The way her relationship with life is described is analogous to dyspareunia in various parts of the novel:

Every time she felt touched by life, it hurt and she held back instantly. A lowest sound, air, sunlight, wind; the moment the breath of life penetrated into her nostrils, her skin, she was shattered down. So she put the duvet against life and slept under it, protected, all day.

Feraye and her identical twin sister, Feryal, are born into the family of a successful businessman and an academic of archeology who is famous in her field. As both parents are preoccupied with what they do, sisters develop a strong attachment to each other. Feraye is somehow the more agressive one of the twins, and reacts more to people’s constant comparison between them. While it is Feraye who keeps stressing that they should be dressed up differently, have different haircuts, etc to build separate images and Feryal obeys, one day at a summer holiday, Feryal suddenly gets sick due to an unknown reason and dies within a day. Shaken and having difficulty overcoming feelings such as guilt, it becomes difficult to start the secondary school they were enrolled in together with Feryal for Feraye, who had no friends but Feryal. She never smiles, she never talks to any of the other students, including the times she is talked to, but when someone asks if s/he can sit near her -as desks are for two pupils in Turkish school system-, she refuses, saying the place is already full. Feraye keeps having an imaginary being of Feryal with her at all times, and Feryal’s imaginary being walks besides her, sits besides her and does everything Feraye does identically. Feraye is confused about how she can grow up and change while Feryal remains the same, and silently observes, watches over every cell of her living being -or, the “life” within her body- every moment.

Cem is opposite to everything Feraye is with her silence and stagnancy. Students and teachers are fed up with his constant talking and restlessness, and see him as an irrepressible hellion. One of the teachers makes him sit next to Feraye thinking Cem will talk less there, and Feraye can’t object. Cem tries everything to provoke Feraye to give a reaction, but his attempts remain fruitless. Feraye is the only person his tricks don’t work on.

When Cem is given a punishment to remain inside the classroom during lunch breaks, he notices that Feraye spends lunch hours sitting immovably at her desk all by herself in the classroom, and eats food she brings from home not to join the others at the refectory. Whatever he does, he can’t make Feraye look at him or talk to him, and he finally gives way, accepting Feraye is a tough nut to crack. Maybe he becomes most himself when he, giving up all his efforts to achieve what-he-also-doesn’t-know-himself, calms down, and begins sitting silently next to Feraye as she does, during lunch breaks. At one point in these lunch breaks that they spend alone in the classroom, he says to Feraye, quite serenely, “Nobody likes us,”, almost like murmuring to himself, and Feraye becomes aware that these are the first sincere words he hears from him, says “I know”, and a bond begins to form between them.

Noone realizes the bond between these two who seem to have nothing in common, and they don’t question their sharing the same desk in the following 7 years of their education, presumably interpreting it as a habit resulting from a punishment. Cem is his restless self again amongst others, whereas he calms down only when he is alone with Feraye.

Cem’s father Cemil Enginsoy is the first Turkish person who receives a Nobel Prize in Physics with his discovery named after him, The Enginsoy effect, recoilless nuclear fluorescence of gamma rays in 191 iridium. As a small child, Cem remembers his father as a kind, loving parent who can only scarcely see his son, because he is working day and night in a place called “lab”. Cem is not allowed in this “lab” on the grounds that it is dangerous for a child. Cemil Enginsoy makes a groundbreaking discovery by breaking the mold of classical physics principles and receives worldwide eminence, yet, Cem’s father becomes cancer as a result of the gamma rays he is subjected to during his research and dies in pain.

When Cem and his mother arrive Turkey by a plane carrying a coffin to be buried, they are greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of people including journalists. Cem feels very much uncomfortable by the reporters’ camera flashes and the microphones extended to them. This vehement curiosity of people targeting Cem and his mother continue during and after the funeral. Everyone wants to talk to them.

There is only one TV channel in Turkey at the time; TV interviewers come to their house several times, including the day of the funeral. People keep sending presents, letters of condolences, flowers and all sorts of stuff to their address. The more exuberancy, the less understood Cem feels in their grief. Newspapers and TV mention Cemil Enginsoy almost every day and Cem thinks, “What do they know? What do they know about him? What do they know about the man whose eyes also beam when he beams?”

Whenever media mentions Cemil Enginsoy’s name, they don’t finish without referring to seven-year-old Cem and how bright he is, just like his father. Even newspapers’ obituarity notices of his father are full of similar details about young Cem’s life. “What do they know about me?”, Cem, again, thinks. Cem’s mother, İkbal, who is also an intelligent physicist, chooses not to work to fully dedicate her life to Cem and gives him an intensive education of physics from an early age, especially in regards to the area Cemil Enginsoy had an outstanding contribution to. No other twelve-year-old would know gamma radiation, resonance absorption, Enginsoy spectroscopy as Cem did. Also, the media proclaims every single development in science Cemil Enginsoy’s name is also mentioned; it is hard for Cem not to know anything related to the Enginsoy effect.

Even if it is never expressed explicitly, Cem feels everyone expects him to become a scientist and make discoveries his father -as they reckon- couldn’t make because he died so early. The burden of being the only heir of such a prominent figure lost so young, who is also the only other male of the family, feels too heavy to bear down, and he rebels against this expectation of media by being someone who mocks the media from its right inside: He becomes a famous, colourful TV entertainer. He lives in a boat, cannot get attached to women and is engaged in promiscuous sexuality and extreme sports, and after travelling all around the world by snap decisions, he comes back to an armchair in Feraye’s living room, thinking this is the only place he can find peace, by Feraye’s side.

Cem’s actions are deliberate blasphemy against everything that both his mother and the Turkish people/media hold too dear and sacred to see anything wrong to feel proud of sacrificing Cem’s father life to science.

Right before the novel begins, there is a two-pages note titled “Wish” written by the author to a child whose identity is unknown to her. On 17 December 2004 on Stansted Airport Chapel prayer board in London, she sees a prayer by the handwriting of a small child, which says, “Dear God, please heal the pains of my father and give his health back to him soon.” The note is a “wishing-well” to the child and to all children who wish their fathers’ pains to heal.

In Dyspareunia, Cemil Enginsoy is taken from the USA to a hospital by the river Thames in London and Cem, who spends him time wandering around the hospital by himself and fabricating stories about who he is to strangers he meets in the hospital or on the benches by Thames, discovers the prayer book in the hospital chapel. Every day he visits the chapel to write the same sentence on the prayer book, “Dear God, please heal the pains of my father and give his health back to him soon.” One day, when he is passing by his father’s room where he is not allowed in, he hears a groan. Shaken and terrified, he makes a critical decision. He goes back to the chapel and removes the second part of his prayers in the prayer book one by one, converting all his prayers written so far to “Please heal the pains of my father”. Then he goes to the bridge over Thames to sacrifice his goose-feather pillow, an attachment object he can never separate with since babyhood although he is allergic to goose feather. After watching goose feathers -that had been making him sick for almost all his life- flying elegantly and mixing into the Thames, he runs back to the hospital and hides in a corner, terrified of what he had done. When he is found by his aunt, he realizes that his wish came true, by the way his aunt talks to him.

Dyspareunia is dedicated “To the child, and to Rudolf Ludwig Mössbauer”, a German physicist who received Nobel with his discovery named after him, the Mössbauer effect. The novel, changing the scientist’s name to Cemil Enginsoy, explains in detail how Mössbauer’s discovery ruins the memorization of science and how it was initially mocked, remaining loyal to life facts, however, the scientist’s terminal illness part of the story is fabricated as well as the name, as Mössbauer, who received the Nobel at the age of 32 in 1961 lived a healthy life until he died in 2011, aged 82.

Cem Enginsoy is named after his father Cemil Enginsoy at birth. They give the “new” baby a shortened version of the name, thinking this would be more practical. In the novel, there is a discussion between Cem and Feraye about the number of syllables in names. All names in the novel are composed of two syllables except Cem and Feraye’s names. Feraye mentions how common names with two syllables are, and explains her incompatibility with modern outer reality by having an outmoded name with three syllables, as names become shorter along with everything becoming faster and more practical. Then Cem replies that he thinks it wasn’t Feryal but Feraye who died, as she was the meeker, less strong one to survive in modern reality, and Feraye is now using the name of her dead sister instead of her own name with two syllables. In the same conservation, they talk about the tension between horizontal (outer) and vertical (inner) energy, which is the central matter in both their lives and a reference to Mössbauer’s and Einstein’s theories of energy in physics, that is widely mentioned throughout several parts of the novel.

As they are twin sisters, almost noone can understand which one of the twins died, however, the lost one is idealized and still compared with Feraye -and everything she achieves- by people who could never tell the difference between them, including a kiosk man they used to buy ice cream from in the park they went to. Both characters struggle with their heritage that come with their names: Feraye has difficulty creating a name of her own in the field of archeology, as people think things must be easy for her with a famous archeologist mother and a wealthy father; and the prejudice that she wouldn’t need money or any sort of help makes it easier for people to rationalize the various ways they make use of her and their underestimation of her knowledge, talent and capacity.

In an interview, Nihan Kaya said that it is possible Feraye never had a twin sister, but it was the death of a part of Feraye’s own self she grieves over the loss of, and she constructed the story in a way both readings are possible.

The novel begins with Cem’s twenty-year-old daughter’s visit to fourty-seven-year-old Feraye in her house, after paparazzis discover Cem’s visits to Feraye’s house at weird times. The highly sensitive daughter, who, unlike Feraye, saw and knew very little of Cem all her life except his screen-self, asks Feraye about the nature of the relationship between them. The nature of the relationship between Feraye and Cem is widely discussed among the readers, too. Some argued that they have a romantic bond which never becomes physical because each one stands at the other extreme pole, whereas some argued that it is clear they are only friends and nothing beyond that.

The novel keeps moving back and forth in time, and is composed of chapters like “Now”, “Two Months Ago”, “Fourty-Five Years Ago”, “Fourty-Seven Years Ago”, again, “Fourty-Seven Years Ago”, “Two Years Ago” and ends with “Three Hours Ago”. The first chapter which is written in present tense is repeated towards the end of the novel as written in past tense this time, after our scope is changed. Cem’s tendency to run away from his past and to live only in the present is portrayed in the subsequent small chapters narrated by Cem, talking in the present tense, in contrast to Feraye’s for which the past tense is used.

In the end, Cem takes Feraye by the hand and takes her out to the Bollingen Tower he built in secret, surrounded by a deep, artificial lake, referring to the horizontal and the vertical they discussed, and asks her to jump from the tower with him. Feraye says this is not what she meant when she was telling him about the horizontal and the vertical reality and refuses. She thinks the whole idea of building the tower is horizontalization and simplification of the matter, something Cem tends to. Cem and Feraye don’t die, but Hayal (Cem’s daughter) who comes up to the tower balcony feels scared of paparazzis’ sudden flashbulbs and falls into the water by mistake. With her death, Cem and Feraye’s situations gets reversed. Cem gets in his room in the tower and begins to write a novel called Dyspareunia, that begins with Hayal’s visit to Feraye; Feraye goes out and wanders the streets of the city aimlessly.