We’ve just encountered the fascinating Turkish modernist Bilge Karasu, in a new translation from City Lights of his 1971 novel A Long Day’s Evening. This remarkable book considers agonizing internal struggles of faith among eighth-century Byzantine monks through the refracted, internalized prose of Joyce and Proust, giving them startlingly raw existential urgency. Something soul-plumbing for the holidays!
When Byzantine emperor Leo III issued edicts forbidding the veneration of icons in the 720s, a monk named Adronikos responded with self-sacrifice, fleeing the demand that he renounce the practices he held sacred and then returning to face torture and death. His friend Ioakim chose escape.
En route to Ravenna
as if on a trip, an excursion
he was running away as everyone knew
on the ship that was carrying away a family, servants, slave
wealth, provisions, oils, fabrics, gold that belonged to noble Michael who grudgingly had to leave his mansion behind
Ioakim had heard that the noble’s slave was from the Orient, but had not thought of asking him what part of the ocean known as the Orient he was from. He can’t even recall his name, except that it was an odd name, like all Oriental names
One night, he’d told Ioakim a fairy tale; it was a night when the sea was somehow perfectly calm, a night of oppressive heat when a cool dampness clung to one’s skin.
It must have been an Oriental tale. It’s strange that he can still remember it.
Perhaps it’s not strange.
Some details elude him: where the architect was from, who he was, why he had agreed to undertake the task.
He does remember this: An architect is instructed to build a palace with hundreds of, thousands of, cut stones of various colors. A palace such that whoever enters it should feel perfectly at home, know which room is where, which stairway leads where, which door opens to which room; but at the same time, the palace has to be so extraordinary, built so ingeniously, that whoever enters it should know, recognize right away that he neither has seen nor will ever get to see another place like it in his lifetime.
The architect is given one more instruction. No two stones of identical color can be set either side by side or one over the other, except once, in one singular instance throughout the immense palace.
So the architect gets to work, applying his cunning, his utmost mastery, supervising the completion of the first row of stones. But the difficulties he encounters during the second row prove quite daunting. So he orders the workers to tear down the first row, deciding to start over by building up one of the corners. After getting a few rows completed, he moves to building another corner. To avoid tearing down what he has built. Each time he notices that a pair of same-colored stones would have to be set side by side, he leaves that wall segment to get started on another segment. The thought that he is allowed only one exception disheartens him so much that he keeps postponing the exception, thinking he might need it later. Days, months, years pass like this; he grows old, one foot is already in the grave, as they say, each morning may be the start of his last day, each night may be his last; then, all of a sudden, he realizes
He realizes that, though his workers have long abandoned him—in reality, he had pushed them away—and he‘s been toiling alone for years in a dreadful frenzy, he has somehow managed to gather inside him all the patience his workers have lost, to recover deep in the heart of his heart all the patience he’s spent on his workers, absorb their strength in his own arms in order to fill the entire plot assigned to him with wall fragments, waiting to be connected. Even if he has enough strength or life left in him to connect these walls, he has completely cleared his mind of the rules according to which the palace was supposed to have been built; the finished structure will not even resemble a barn that could shelter animals, much less a palace at once extraordinary, at once familiar to everyone. There is neither a palace nor a building in place, not even the notion of one or the other.
Only one question had crept its way into young Ioakim’s mind that night: So what if he didn’t build it? What if he didn’t toil?
At that age, a person is predisposed to renounce a duty rather than understanding it….
The fairy tale he heard that night probably contained details that illuminated or answered this question. He doesn’t recall. Still, those details couldn’t have explained to a young mind such as Ioakim’s why someone would agree to play a game that would cause him to squander his entire life.
The Oriental slave
At the end of his story—it had seemed to last for hours—the Oriental slave had asked Ioakim the following question: What did you learn? What does this fairy tale want to tell you? Without waiting for Ioakim’s response, he’d risen to his feet; walking away, he’d said, “Life.” Nothing more.
A few nights later, the poor man was stabbed to death by one of the sailors. As if it had to have been so. That man from the Orient was meant to be the hero of a story with a definitive ending.
Fragments of memories. That man who was so dread-stricken that he died before he could set side by side even the one pair of same-colored stones
He had to have died. Ioakim cannot recall the rest of the fairy tale
The architect who died
His sky of miniature colored tiles—but of the kind that heeds no law or stricture against setting same-colored tiles side by side—spanning the interior surface of a dome that, little by little, is coming alive, beginning to show the way to eternity; the arches that support this dome
His home—its likeness, its shadow—in this alien country, his sanctuary soon to be his tomb
His country, the land where he is the sovereign
The temple’s dome, its arches
He will revive the dying fire in Ravenna.
There was the time before Ravenna.
Certain men had appeared in the city, secretly talking about the valley in Cappadocia. These men were all different, different in complexion, different in their leanness, their famished bodies, different in attire. Though they had one thing in common.
The strange hunger in their eyes.
Drawing near you with their eyes fixed on the ground, the men were perhaps unremarkable at first, but once they looked up, stared into your eyes, you could not ignore where they had come from.
They spoke about the valley. That it was a sanctuary created by God. That no emperor’s hand could easily touch it. That, even if armies were sent there, they would quickly abandon the hope of controlling the people who lived in the tens of thousands of hollows along the hills.
This valley, as described by those men with the strange gaze—who approached you without looking up, who kept watching the sea with you while they spoke, as if addressing the sea or the sky—had, over time, begun to assume a magic aura, glowing with a dreamy brilliance in the eyes, the hearts of many.
Every so often, when someone disappeared, the news would spread quickly. If a monk from a monastery at the other end of the city were to disappear overnight, the news would, by the next evening, have spread to every corner of the city. With each passing month, fewer people were or acted outraged at the runaway monks—ungrateful traitors, they would shout, those who spurn our illustrious Emperor’s benevolence deserve to die by torture. The escapes began to carry meaning. The dissidents were coming to realize—or assume—that, in solidarity, they were gaining a new strength. Perhaps there were persons whose disappearance had nothing to do with dissent, but they, too, were counted among the escapees, in order to advance a new vocation, a new philosophy, a new virtue: Escape. It had come to be seen as an ideal, a form of resistance, a means of heroism, at the same time, a new means of oppression….
Young, naïve, Ioakim was quickly drawn into this wave of escape, but for a long time managed to keep his feet anchored to the seafloor. By the time he might have been able to release his feet, to surrender his body to the sea, either the wave had lost its force or he no longer cared to be carried away.
During the early months, Ioakim could not imagine that escape might follow a different course from Andronikos’ own escape to the island. Andronikos had left but he had to return. He knew why he had escaped, why he had to return. He did not resemble in the least those who escaped to the valley. They were escaping to safeguard an ideology. Andronikos had escaped to safeguard his integrity, he had returned, accepted death, for the same reason, so that no one could accuse him of selfishness. Ioakim would not be able to endure torture.
Because he would not be able to endure torture, he could not imagine returning. If he escaped, he would not return. Yet if he stayed, his life would remain untroubled. Only by escaping would he join the rebels’ ranks, cut off the path of return.
For a long time, he was spurred as much by desire as by fear.
Those who did not escape would soon become objects of shame; they were already becoming so. Familiar faces were beginning to appear among the visitors from Cappadocia. Those who had stayed away long enough to be forgotten were now returning to persuade their friends to join them in the valley. Fugitives from the law, they no longer feared being caught, or rather, being turned in. They also approached Ioakim a few times.
At first, they described the valley, the authentic monastic life in the true monasteries that one found there. They spoke of the beauty, the bounty, the vineyards widening little by little, the herds growing.
They described the cells, the houses, the churches carved into hill after hill throughout the valley. Later on some of them began to bring up the topic of his youth, trying to take advantage of it, to pressure him into leaving. Gradually, however, they must have decided that he was a hard field to plow, since he was accosted less frequently by the visitors—those men with the faraway gaze, telling stories of the valley.
One day he realized that no one encouraged him to escape anymore, no one challenged or even reproached him for refusing to escape. What he felt on that day must have been something akin to hurt, something akin to sadness. Ah, youth.
He did grow older. Old enough that he could imagine escaping, not the way Andronikos or others had, but escaping all the same. More than a few monks in the monastery were younger than him now.
Rome greeted the Emperor’s envoys in Ravenna as if they were the Emperor himself. In Ravenna, it was impossible to free oneself from the master. Trying to stay in Ravenna would have been the worst lie one could tell oneself. Lying is a condition of slavery, but lying cannot tolerate cheating. To begin telling the truth while lying was as much cheating as lying while telling the truth.
He had tried to steer clear of it. […] He had quickly tried to steer clear of lying. He acknowledges it now. More clearly than he had at the time….He had traveled down to Rome to steer clear of lying. Down to the edge of the swamps near Rome.
What he had done was something akin to asking his enemy for sanctuary just so he could persist in his enmity. He had indeed been granted sanctuary.
When asking the Bishop of Rome for a place to keep the old faith alive, Ioakim had been particularly careful to behave within the confines of faith. A bit like the dying patient who asks for his hair to be combed.
He understood his behavior now. That is, he was able to interpret it. “Now” is just a few hours ago—which already feels as remote as a few months, a few years ago….Because now he has arrived somewhere altogether different.
Now, in this moment when he gazes at the yawning emptiness of the palace interiors before him, when he watches the sea, burning in brilliance, about to fill this emptiness with its three arms—how his eyes can still behold these vivid scenes, these images—
He finally know what he is
that he is
The reality of the moment may change again. But he will not have to account for it again. Ioakim knows it.
On the hill, the time when he turned his back on the sunset, on the other hill, when the sun was setting to his left, he now knows what he had been looking for.
—translated from the Turkish by Aron Aji and Fred Stark
Bilge Karasu (1930-1995) was born in Istanbul. He taught in the philosophy department of Hacettepe University in Ankara for most of his life. Nicknamed “the sage of Turkish literature,” during his lifetime he published stories, novels, and two books of essays. His novel, Night, was published in English translation by Louisiana State University Press in 1994 and received the Pegasus Prize for Literature. Death In Troy is the second of his works translated in English and was published by City Lights in 2002. Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, was published by New Directions in 2004 and received the National Translation Award.
Aron Aji, a native of Turkey, has also translated Karasu’s Death in Troy and The Garden of Departed Cats, which received the National Translation Award. He has also translated the work of Murathan Mungan, Elif Shafak, and Latife Tekin. Fred Stark is an American translator who has resided in Turkey for many years. He has also translated Murathan Mungan.