‘Shadowless’ by Hasan Ali Toptaş
The muhtar is the lowest rung of Turkey’s administrative state. Elected by locals to be responsible for city neighborhoods and rural villages, there are over 50,000 muhtars in office across the country. Since 2015, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has hosted 43 (and counting) rallies with muhtars from across the country at his presidential palace. But generally they are seen as firmly non-political figures, pragmatically focused on addressing locals’ everyday concerns.
The troubles of a muhtar in a remote Anatolian village are at the center of “Shadowless” by Hasan Ali Toptaş, one of Turkey’s most celebrated contemporary novelists. The book opens with the muhtar, who remains nameless throughout, relaxing after being elected for a 16th successive year. His village is prosperous and calm, but soon a series of unsettling events start to occur: People perish suddenly, disappear, or meld into one another. The village is sent into a disorienting spiral, prompting talk of a curse among locals.
The reader is also disoriented. Elsewhere, we read about a barbershop in a distant city. Into it walks Nuri, who has vanished without a trace from the village’s barbershop. He enters as if from a dream, unable to grasp the strands of his deceptive memory. Other customers also come and go, similarly trying to recall how they got there. We seem to witness two parallel universes, reflecting obliquely on each other as the village tumbles down the rabbit hole and the patrons of the barbershop struggle to trace their past.
Confused by the disappearances, the muhtar suggests that “a great despair” has settled on the village, with “every new misfortune only adding to it.” His ally the watchman says he cannot put together any theory about what’s happening: “Nothing fits. Everything in this village is getting more complicated by the minute. First things are strange, and then they get stranger … It’s like we’re cursed. Wherever I look, whatever I try to understand, I get dragged deeper into it.”
Most shocking is the abduction of village beauty “Güvercin” (Pigeon in Turkish). In response to her disappearance, the village turns in on itself and spirals into paranoia. It appears to be forgotten both by God and the government, and the novel portrays the distance between a remote village and an impassive central state. It shows how the two infuse each other with myths and misunderstanding to cover up their own inadequacies.
The descriptions of a community’s collective, unspoken guilt sometimes recall Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” Toptaş also shares Marquez’s taste for the phantasmagoric and uncanny. But “Shadowless” is much less direct and even more elusive than the Colombian novelist’s work. There is also precious little humor: Toptaş is unrelentingly serious, which can become wearying over 300 pages.
First published in Turkey in 1995, “Shadowless” is the second Toptaş novel to be translated into English after the even more cryptic “Reckless.” It is a class above that novel, more sure-footed and more focused. The translation is also crisper – unlike in “Reckless,” Maureen Freely and John Angliss do not try to replicate Toptaş’s long and clause-filled sentences. Instead they break them down into more digestible smaller parts, which paradoxically has the effect of making the narrative flow more hypnotically.
Ultimately “Shadowless” leaves behind as many questions as answers. Toptaş constructs an alluring framework and leaves the reader space to join the dots.
* An edited version of this review was previously published in the Times Literary Supplement. Follow the Turkey Book Talk podcast via iTunes here, Stitcher here, Podbean here, or Facebook here, or Twitter here.