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Books

Reviews, news and views on Istanbul’s literary scene

A Long Day’s Evening

A masterful postmodern novel from Bilge Karasu

Author Bilge Karasu
 





BOOK OF THE MONTH

A Long Day’s Evening

Bilge Karasu

City Lights Books

Translated by Aron Aji and Fred Stark

5 stars

 

An English-language reader might be excused for thinking postmodern literature is uncommon in Turkey. Aside from Orhan Pamuk, few Turkish authors of this genre have been translated or widely publicized.

 

But the loss is not Turkey’s. Beginning with works such as Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s ‘Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü’ (The Time Regulation Institute) in 1962 and Oğuz Atay’s ‘Tutunamayanlar’ (The Disconnected) in 1972, and continuing with contemporary writers such as Hakan Günday and Doğu Yücel, Turkey has produced many masters of the postmodern novel. Though very different in style and subject matter, their works are characterized by experimental narrative techniques and a dark, insistent questioning of accepted authority.

 

Bilge Karasu (1930–1995) joined the thin ranks of translated Turkish postmodernist authors in 1994, with the English publication of his novel ‘Night’.Two more of his novels, ‘Death in Troy’ and ‘The Garden of Departed Cats’, were published in English in 2002 and 2004. Known by Turks as a ‘sage of Turkish literature’, Karasu was born in Istanbul to a Jewish father and Greek Orthodox mother. With the recent translation of his ‘Uzun Sürmüş Bir Günün Akşamı’(A Long Day’s Evening), English readers can now enjoy another masterpiece from this inventive postmodernist.

 

‘No book since this book has been written independent of this book,’ main translator Aron Aji has said of ‘A Long Day’s Evening’, which was written in the early 1960s and originally published in 1971. The first section, which constitutes the bulk of the novel, describes the spiralling ruminations of two early Byzantine monks as they react to Emperor Leo III’s edict forbidding icon-worship and wrestle with their resulting choices.

 

Karasu’s language in this section, beautifully wrought by Aji, is spare and evocative. It suits the meandering mental hermitages of both monks as well as the occasional incandescent descriptions of reality breaking in upon their quietude. As the second monk drifts within his own thoughts, for example, he notices ‘a faint, distant buzzing in the air. Like a woman wailing beside her dead child, stringing her laments one after another, her voice coiling along the links of her long chain of laments.’

 

The novel also plays with certain trends favoured by the postmodern literary set. To reinforce ‘the severe isolation of individuals’, according to Aji, Karasu uses a loose form of constrained writing: omitting the word ‘and’ from the entire novel (the translators have followed suit).

 

‘A Long Day’s Evening’ befuddles some conventions of postmodernist literature, however. While most postmodernist critics reject the notion that a writer’s context is important to understanding his creative output, Karasu invites the reader into his own history in the second part of the novel, a short story entitled ‘The Mulberry Trees’. This first-person, semiautobiographical piece is set in Istanbul just weeks after the military coup of 1960. As the narrator comes to terms with the new political order of his country, he recalls the distant political turbulence of his youth through memories of a former piano teacher who escaped Mussolini’s fascist regime in the 1930s.

 

This closing story picks up some themes from the monks’ inner monologues, the most obvious being the crisis of conscience an individual faces when forced to accept an arbitrary decree or suffer harsh consequences. But the tone and first-person narration is so different from the monks’ section that it begs the question of why Karasu added it to his book – and implies that the novel held deeper personal significance to the author than meets the eye.

 

A partial answer to this riddle lies in another work of Karasu’s, his ‘Preface to Other Writings’, which is excerpted by Aji in the preface to ‘A Long Day’s Evening’. The 20th century, Karasu wrote, ‘appears to have failed to do, all the way into its last years, anything other than exhibit over and over examples of the bloodiest, the most ruthless, the most senseless treatment of the other…. I am trying to understand us, what separates us from the other. That’s all.’

 

The ‘other’ is usually construed as a person or society removed from ‘us’ by space. But Karasu has chosen to study his ‘other’ across the divide of time, pushing readers to compare the profound identity crises engulfing individuals in ancient Byzantium to those in the early Turkish Republic. In doing so, Karasu shows the futility of separating ourselves from ‘others’ – and the social upheaval that results when we do. Julia Harte




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