Note: I started writing this on Saturday, June 13. Got lazy and stopped, then procrastinated.
It’s a contemplative Saturday. A day spent in deep thoughts as I consider this crazy world I live in. Even the sky is moody with storm clouds rolling in, blocking the brilliant sun. I woke early this morning because all last night I felt like writing but was unable to because I was tired. I was excited to be up early before the noise and tension that would come as my day progressed and my family woke with a clash and bang that would reverberate through my thoughts preventing me from thinking. For now, they are quiet. They are asleep.
My writing morning began with my Weekend Reads meme, which was on diversity in young-adult novels. It threw me into a deeper pensive mood. I sometimes hopped over to Facebook, which is rife with posts on the Rachel Dolezal fiasco and it tore my mind in two. I find the entire thing hilarious and I’m shocked that this White woman successfully posed as a Black person for 31 years, even becoming president of a NAACP chapter, but I’m also upset with her because part of me thinks—feels—that she took my culture and history for puppetry. Maybe that wasn’t her intention. Maybe she loves the Black culture so much that she wished she was Black and made herself so. After all, she did advocate for Blacks. I am confused. I don’t know how to feel.
I guess that’s why I see this time—this mood—fitting for writing about Bilge Karasu’s novel A Long Day’s Evening. One of the protagonists is also upset and confused by the changes in his society.
A Long Day’s Evening is divided into three sections. The first two take place in the 8th-century Byzantine Empire of Leo III, and the third section is set in the 20th century. Each of the first two sections focuses on a monk from Constantinople during a time of iconoclasm, when his faith is upended as the emperor outlaws all religious paintings and icons. The monks grapple with changes to their faith as well as their relation to each other. The third section “jumps forward to the 20th century, with the narrator reflecting on his family’s experiences in pre-war Italy and contemporary Turkey, shortly after the first military coup in the Turkish republic’s history” (I didn’t read the final section so this is taken from Hurriyet Daily News, see below).
It took me a while to get into this book but once I did I was hooked; well, to the first story, The Island. I gave up on The Hill and didn’t bother with the third, The Mulberry Trees. I’ll discuss The Island first since I read all of it and then I’ll share my thoughts on the bit I read from The Hill.
The Island opens with Andronikos, the elder of the two monks, drawing closer to an abandoned island he escapes to shortly before the emperor’s decree to destroy all physical representations of religious figures goes into effect. As we spend time with Andronikos on the island, we learn how confused he is by these changes to his religion as well as how he relates to Ioakim, the younger monk who narrates The Hill. It almost seems as if he went to the island not to avoid persecution for being unable to assimilate to the changes, but only to make sense of his thoughts and feelings.
Karasu illustrates Andonikos’ confused state in various ways, for example, the narration. A limited third-person narrator is used for the majority of the story so we can observe Andronikos’ struggle with his doubts without getting tangled in them. But when Andronikos’ fear mounts—like when he thinks of the punishment he’d have to endure if caught not adhering to the new rules,—the narrator switches to first person and it’s then that we really see the tear, the duality, that the changes to his faith has caused in him. The first person is also used when he discovers the truth of himself in regards to his faith.
Karasu also uses time to show Andronikos’ confused state. He includes flashbacks in alternating paragraphs, which was confusing to this reader at first because I didn’t understand what was going on. But once I caught on, I was golden. The past and present are juxtaposed to show at what point in the past Andronikos began to have doubts, lost his way, and had to leave to clear his head. In the present, we see him search for a spring he’s not sure exists, get lost along the way and suffers from extreme thirst, and eventually finds it and refreshes himself. Actually, I liked the juxtaposition once I got it. Sometimes the lines between past and present, reality and illusion, are blurred and become hard to distinguish one from the other. At such moments, Andronikos is almost at the end of his resolve. He is dehydrated, more lost than ever, and his fear sends his thoughts into overdrive.
His meandering about the island in search of water also reflects the state of his thoughts. When he sets out for the spring, he has only a vague idea of where it’s located. He’s going based on some other monk’s instructions and he’s not even sure they’re correct. Once we learn more about Andronikos and his faith, we see that this mirrors how he blindly followed the dictations of his faith out of habit without questioning the purpose behind his actions. He stumbles many times on the way to the spring as he sorts through his tangled thoughts. When he goes off into reveries or hallucinations in which past and present and dream and reality are blurred, he loses his way to the spring and winds up lost. He doesn’t notice a clear path leading to the spring until he finds it and takes a drink, until his thoughts are sorted and he comes to terms with his faith.
Though it was annoying at first, I LOVE the structure of this section of the book and the thoughts and questions Andronikos considers. I think the stumbling around represents best how we all stumble and are often lost when it comes to religion and faith. I also like that Andronikos addresses the moments when he was faithful to the requirements of his religion out of habit. There are many people who serve out of habit and not out of faith or love but are convinced that they are faithful and loving because the regularity of their habits convinces them that they are so.
“Before the entire community, each monk was expected to come forward to renounce the old belief, affirm that his eyes had at last opened to the dreadful sin of idolatry, swear never to allow himself or others to commit such a sin.”
This short section from this little book raises many questions about religion and how we serve. It got me wondering if religion is only a social construct. What is the purpose of religion? Is it to bond us to our fellow man or to structure/dictate how we serve a higher being? I wondered this as I considered why religions change and evolve, and why are there schisms. When Andronikos thinks of the changes to his religion, he is torn because if he should adhere to the changes, then he would have to admit that he’d believed a lie all his life. Then again, if he should hold on to his old beliefs, then he’ll probably be thrown in a dungeon for defying the new laws and he fears the dungeon.
That made me wonder which will win out—fear or faith. And also that it makes sense to me that religion is a social construct because of how often it’s changed to suit the new ways people relate to each other. If religion wasn’t solely a social construct and its purpose was only for the service of a higher being, then it wouldn’t have to change, especially if that being hasn’t changed….I guess this line of thinking will eventually lead to the question of whether it’s God who created humans or humans who created God, which in my religion is borderline blasphemy and in my body a headache so I’m gonna screech my brakes here. Eeerrkss!
“Andronikos had made the mistake of perceiving the state of unknowing or the inability to know as an article of faith. He had fooled himself into thinking so.”
Then again, such questions are unavoidable if you’re the type who questions everything. Andronikos wasn’t like that at first but the changes to his religion made him begin to tingle and soon such thoughts erupted. He began to wonder should we should not question our beliefs. And I wondered the same when I read it in the book. It’s not the first I’ve asked myself that question. I’m often told that faith means to blindly serve but shouldn’t we be aware of our beliefs? I think we should.
But anyways, The Hill.
I couldn’t make it up The Hill with Ioakim. I enjoyed The Island as the story progressed but once I flipped to The Hill, the narration annoyed me the more I read and soon my patience wore out. The story wasn’t bad. What irked me was the sentence structure. From the bit I read of The Hill: It’s a few years in the future, Andronikos has long passed, and Ioakim is an old man walking with a cane and reflecting on past days with Andronikos.
Karasu tries to capture the abrupt thoughts of the elderly Ioakim by writing sentences that end in mid-sentence or without a period. It’s hard to tell if the thought had stopped or paused or continued into the next paragraph. Like the first story, flashbacks are used and sometimes past and present are blurred. The narrator here is a limited third person as well. All of these together made a jumble in my mind and the story barely penetrated to the deeper layers of my brain. I have no patience for such sentences. Such experimental writing is why I despise most postmodern fiction. I just can’t. I gave up and moved on.
I read the introduction instead and two reviews on the book (see below) which gave me some background on the author and some insight into what Karasu hoped to accomplish with this book. As you can see, I paid more attention to the discussion on religion. As such, I missed much of what the author hoped to accomplish, especially since I didn’t read the entire book, so I was glad for the additional articles.
From the articles, I got a refresher on Turkish history: Karasu’s story touches on Turkey’s attempts at modernization after World War I. Under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey, the country’s language was reformed almost overnight as Atatürk sought to westernize the country. Also, I found this bit on language most interesting. Apparently, Karasu wrote the story in a “pure” form of Turkish, so pure that the Turkish construction for “and” is not included because “and” is an Arabic creation. Before Atatürk’s reforms, the Turkish language had some Arabic and Persian words mixed in. (I learned this from the American Scholar article, see below).
But the translation I read flowed well and was easy to read—despite the sentence structure in The Hill—so I wondered how the translators manage to translate the story into English despite the absence of “and”. I wasn’t paying attention to notice whether or not “and” was used and I regret not noticing this. Part of me wishes that I had researched the book before I read it, or at least read the introduction first. But I skipped it since the introductions to books usually give too much away.
A quick glance at a few pages reveals no “and”.
A solid three stars. I did not love the story and I did not like how it was crafted but I appreciate the questions it raised and the thoughts it inspired. So if you’re in the mood for some high literary fiction that’s inspired by Turkish historical events, then I suggest you give this a shot. I also recommend this to readers who are fans of experimental narration in postmodern texts and those looking for a good read that raises questions about religion and faith.
(Added to the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge)
Quotes from the book:
“Yet to create something, one must first believe. Above all else, believe…”
“in order to chase after adventure, one must have a strong heart, courage, he must be able to unchain himself from habits; rather, he must avoid developing habits.”
“Solitude becomes all the more enjoyable when it isn’t compulsory.”
“Man is mortal, he might as well do something with his life…There’s no sense in waiting for death.”
“It’s good to take the difficult path if a person wants to know his character, test his strength, recognize the capacity of his will. Man must start with himself, first steel his being, before he can strive to accomplish anything.”
- Review: Bilge Karasu’s “A Long Day’s Evening” (theamericanreader.com)
- ‘A Long Day’s Evening’ From Byzantium to Modern Turkey (www.hurriyetdailynews.com)