It’s been a goal of mine–unsatisfactorily fulfilled–to include in these pages reviews not only of novels from my own country, but also those written overseas. A culture can become myopic if it views the world only from its own perspective. We read world literature not only to experience how vast and different the peoples of the world are, but also to recognize that we share common concerns, desires, and fears. For that reason, it’s my intention to introduce you to foreign writers. I’m also introducing them to myself, because I’m not as well-read in world literature as I need to be. When The Long Day’s Evening by Bilge Karasu, a Turkish writer, came into my possession, I saw it as a sign that I needed to begin that long-promised survey of world literature.
In genre, The Long Day’s Evening is historical fiction; in tone, it’s a philosophical novel. Set during the Byzantium Empire, it concerns a monk, Andronikos, who decides to travel to an uninhabited island to live as a hermit. The emperor had decreed that the worship of idols is prohibited. Since this ban contradicts Andronikos’ faith, he realizes he must live as an exile from men. The structure reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Like Woolf’s novel, the entire story takes place on two days, years apart. Like Woolf’s novel, the drama is more cerebral than physical. This is a novel of the brain rather than the body.
In the first part, the first day, Andronikos arrives on the island. Curious about his new home, he explores it. He climbs its tallest hill in hopes that from it he’ll locate water. As he climbs it, he ponders the nature of faith. Though he fled the emperor’s decree, believing it was what his faith demanded, now on the island, he fears it was the cowardly decision. Wouldn’t his faith be better served by rejecting the emperor’s demands and facing his punishment? In the second part, decades later, another monk, Andronikos’ protégé–Ioakim by name–climbs his own hill. Now seventy-years-old, he continues to ponder the question that has haunted him since Andronikos’ flight. Was Andronikos a hero? The nature of faith, the nature of heroism–these are the topics of The Long Day’s Evening. The monks’ interior monologues provide the conflict.
Despite the philosophical tone, Karasu roots The Long Day’s Evening in the tangible, recognizable world. His characters are engaged in the everyday activity, even the trivial. One explores the island where he expects to live as a hermit. The other walks a city street the he has walked several times for years. No matter how far their inner monologues stray, they often stopped and examine the scene around them. Karasu’s descriptions are beautiful, poetic, striking a balance between the secular and the spiritual. As Andronikos stands on the island and watch a distant ship, Karasu writes:
The sky is clear, cloudless. Perfectly blue, without a hint of humidity. The white sail, set against the black-red streaks of the ship along the luminescent blue sea, looks like a separate living being, agile, moving to its own fancy. The opposite shore is covered in a veil of mist, through he can still discern clusters of vegetation.
I fear I read The Long Day’s Evening wrong. Since it’s a short novel, I read it in two days. But it’s less the type of novel you read. It’s more the type of novel you ponder. It inspires reflection, but I fear I didn’t give myself enough time for that reflection. I blame Karasu’s prose. It’s simple but compelling. It kept drawing me deeper into the minds of these two men. Both are likable characters, but I found Andronikos more a sympathetic character. He’s a man of principle who suffers the paradox of being both dogmatic but filled with doubt. I think that’s what I liked best about The Long Day’s Evening. Though certain of the righteousness of his course, Andronikos was still willing to challenge himself, to question his own actions, to entertain the possibility that he’s wrong.
Bilge Karasu was born in Istanbul in 1930; he died in 1995. At college, he studied philosophy, a subject he later taught at Hacettepe University, but it’s as a writer that we know him. I usually like to tell my readers more biographical information about the writers I read, but I fear I can’t find much more about Karasu than his short biography on the back cover of The Long Day’s Evening. Though a famous writer in Turkey, in the United States, he’s still obscure. That’s unfortunate, because he deserves more praise and attention. I know I’m going to read his other works. Also available in English are two short story collections–The Garden of the Departed Cats and Death in Troy–and a novel, Night. Night won the Pegasus Prize in Literature in 1994. Aron Aji translated A Long Day’s Evening. Fred Stark translated the short story “The Mulberry Trees,” also included in the book.
I have a comfort zone in reading, but comfort zones are best when broken. The Long Day’s Evening isn’t the book I would’ve selected for myself in a bookstore, but it came to me as a gift from a Turkish scholar, Suha Oguzertem. I want to thank Mr. Oguzertem for his gift and for introducing me to this wonderful writer. I fear most American readers fall into their own comfort zones, reading only novels in one genre or even only by one writer. If you find yourself suffering that myopic behavior, I challenge you to break out of your comfort zone. Bilge Karasu’s The Long Day’s Evening is the prefect place to start.