Book: The Bridge by Geert Mak

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The Bridge: A Journey between Orient and Occident by Geert Mak

Published by Vintage (2009) 

Without the bridge you cannot know the city

At less than 200 pages, the Bridge is not a long read, but then there are few travel books which cover such a short distance; in the case of The Bridge, the span of Istanbul’s Galata Bridge (“a journey covering no more than five hundred meters”, according to Mak’s website).

Geert Mak is a Dutch journalist and historian and the author of several books including Amsterdam, In Europe and most recently, In America, Travels with John Steinbeck.

Mak wrote The Bridge for Boekenweek (Dutch Book Week), an event celebrating Dutch literature and held annually since the 1930s.  As part of the event, well known authors are invited to write a book, a ‘Boekenweekgeschenk’ (book week gift), which is then given away at libraries and to those purchasing Dutch language books.

As research, Geert Mak explains on his website that he spent several weeks getting to know the bridge and those who use it.  The product is a book which describes the lives of the bridge’s booksellers, pickpockets umbrella salesmen, beggars, lottery ticket sellers, roasters of chestnuts, porters with rolls and baskets, shoe shine boys, gamblers, lovers and of course the fishermen. All their stories are here and they make a captivating portrait of the Galata Bridge which is melancholy but also full of life.

Reviewing The Bridge for The Telegraph newspaper, Jeremy Seal, author of Fez of the Heart and Meander: East to West Along a Turkish River, called Mak’s book “a sombre narrative […] stalked by multiple instances of yearning, failure and tragedy.” 

However, in a limited number of pages, Mak somehow manages to squeeze in much more than just observation and individual tales into The Bridge.

As its subtitle declares, The Bridge is ‘a journey between Orient and Occident’.  So, in between getting to know those who frequent the bridge, Mak invokes chroniclers of Istanbul (such as De Amicis, Joseph Brodsky, Orhan Pamuk, Pierre Loti) to examine Istanbul’s history and its position as a geographical and cultural crossroads; a “remarkable corner of the globe.”

Keeping the bridge as the focal point Mak mixes past and present and explores its role as meeting point and boundary for the “two spirits living within this city”; the eastward looking southern shore, home to the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi palace and Blue Mosque and the more modern northern shore with its skyscrapers, shopping malls and more Western outlook and mentality.  Mak skilfully weaves the stories of migration, family, community, culture, poverty, hatred, honour, hope and fear with the events of Istanbul’s past as Ottoman capital through its transformation into a modern city.

Mak therefore explores the role of the Galata Bridge not only in Istanbul’s history but as a microcosm of Turkey and as a metaphor for the East’s relationship with the West.  In doing so and, unusually for a travel book, he confronts the humiliation and desperation felt by a large proportion of the world’s population resulting in what Seal writing in the Telegraph called an “anti-travelogue”.

The Bridge is full of contrasts and apparent contradictions to and the effect is a poignant portrait of a city looking towards the future with a mixture of confidence, potential and uncertainty but not cowed by past misfortunes: 

no one gets to determine his own fate. The most important thing is your dignity, that’s one thing you must never give up.

A book worth loitering around as much as the bridge itself.

Further reading: Alex Adil’s review for the Independent is here and Jeremy Seal’s review for the Telegraph is here.

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