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An Excerpt from Bilge Karasu's "A Long Day's Evening"

[The cover of A Long Day's Evening. Image from CityLights] [The cover of A Long Day's Evening. Image from CityLights]

[Bilge Karasu (1930-1995) was born in Istanbul. Often referred to as "the sage of Turkish literature," during his lifetime he published collections of stories, novels, and two books of essay. Karasu is an influential reference point in the progress of Turkish fiction writing. A perfectionist, a philosopher, and a master of literary arts, he left behind a body of work which, although intricately woven and at times obscure, skillfully outlines a world unmatched in its crystal clear transparency. Karasu's novel, Night, was published in English translation by Louisiana State University Press in 1994 and was awarded 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. City Lights will publish Karasu's A Long Day's Evening translated by Aron Aji and Fred Stark in November 2012. The following is an excerpt from the novel]

God did not create humans for them to become each other’s playthings. True, but what if it pleases us to think otherwise, with the pride the devil has instilled in us. . . . His temples throbbing, Andronikos realizes that he hasn’t drunk water for hours. But his clay pitcher is still on the shore, inside the boat. . . . The water in the pitcher would last him for two days, three at the most. After that, it would become stale, infested. Andronikos had filled his pitcher at the well in the center of the village where he’d obtained the boat. It would be difficult to ration water in this heat. He should have thought sooner about finding water. The task is clearly more important than climbing the hill. Not just water, but the spring that Andronikos remembers reading about in a book by an ascetic monk. The burbling spring described by the monk ought to be somewhere around here. Andronikos will have to find it in order to remain on the island. . . .

To remain here. If he has to leave because he couldn’t find water, he will end up having wasted his days wandering. He’ll have to postpone settling some place, doing something. Not much will change, except for the place, although at this moment he can’t think of where. Even the opposite shore seems to be fading from his view. . . . Returning to the city would be — should be — unthinkable. He doesn’t want to wander around aimlessly. As for doing something. . . .

Creature of habit. The human being cannot live without thinking of doing something. Yet, to do something, say, to keep bees, to raise chickens, birds, sheep, or to grow plants, vegetables, fruits. . . . He laughs. One would need the world to do these things. Eggs, chicks, seeds, saplings. He could find these in one of the villages across the sea. But he would need money to buy them. If he tells the villagers that he’s a monk, they might laugh at the kind of monk he is; if he doesn’t, they would grow suspicious. In these times, the villagers would have to be more suspicious than everyone else.

This is not the time to think about them. Hill, water, shelter. Rather, water, hill, shelter. There is no other way.

A few rocks come into view through the trees. Moss covering the rocks. The books had described the moss as edible. It both curbs hunger, quenches thirst. There’s still time before he has to try it.

Andronikos listens. Breeze, rustling leaves, wings beating, seagull cries, crickets beginning to chirr reluctantly. He notices heather growing among the rocks. Even if there is a stream, he wouldn’t be able to hear it. He knows there is no rolling or cascading water on this island. He should keep moving his feet. Steadily, without pausing.

The rocks now seem like they’re stacked one over the other, step upon step. A path, a stairway of sorts. Bordered with moss. Covered with pine needles, cones, dry, perfectly preserved shells of insects, which you couldn’t find in the city, where they would be stepped on, squashed, trampled over time into dust. Not here.

The city. . . . What’s happening there right now, he wonders. Who is being trampled on? What is being smashed, burned in the streets? How, by what means? His friends who didn’t see him among the brothers this morning, how did they react to his absence? Did they hurry to inform the abbot? Or did they wait? If they waited, what did they wait for? If they informed, what did they say?

They must have waited until the start of the general council, which the abbot was supposed to lead immediately following the morning mass. 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. That’s when his escape, rather, his absence, would be noticed. Only two monks would know that he had escaped. Ioakim. Andreas. They would have figured it out, recalling his agitated state the day before, his sudden request for dispensation to visit the city, his anxious, hesitant voice. . . . His absence at the evening mass might have led them to think that he had stayed in his cell, but the morning would have suggested otherwise. In any case, if they waited until the general council, it was probably not because they wanted him to gain time, but because they didn’t know how to react. Once the news of his escape circulated, he would be called “hero” by those who liked him, “traitor” by those who didn’t. Those who disliked him. . . .

The woods lead to a sudden clearing to his left. Andronikos climbs a rock squeezed between two clumps of trees. The sea. The blue, wide, calm, shimmering sea. Blue. Singular, defiant, solitary, a shade that overpowers the blue of Mother Mary’s cloak as depicted in the paintings. Blue, without the red, the green or the gold. He recognizes the small, odd-shaped rocky mass across from the island. It, too, is known as an island but one that has no water. Parched, bare, except for the famished shrubs. Beyond that island, far ahead, is the hazy outline of the opposite shore immersed in mist. The village where he got the boat, his point of departure, is now a green speck in the horizon. If he didn’t know it, know it by heart, he wouldn’t be able to spot it from here. Slowly, very slowly, he turns his head to the left. As if he’s frightened, reluctant. In the mist, at a spot somewhat darker than the others, hundreds of people gathered under the domes renouncing the old, embracing the new. . . .

He is no hero. He is standing somewhere entirely beyond heroism.

But those who disliked him . . . why did they? There had been, on occasion, a few who wanted a closer relationship with him. He never encouraged them. In the monastery everyone was a brother, which was enough; Andronikos didn’t care to get any closer. For quite some time, he has avoided joining in their debates. Because the debates don’t interest him. The points of disagreement are obvious from the start, therefore not even worth debating. Far from leading to any new conclusions, the debates merely provide a few people with the license to invoke certain venerated names, cloak themselves in those venerated shadows — while never failing to insinuate “in my view” into every sentence — and endlessly browbeat their listener with immeasurable, implausible nonsense. That’s all they accomplish. Accomplished. He must now construct his sentences in the past tense.

Andronikos was seized with terror at first. He didn’t participate in these debates, didn’t want to, no longer could. Worse still, he felt no urge or desire. Because — and this is what terrified him — he didn’t believe the topics themselves were important or necessary. Debating them was absurd. It seemed that people abandoned the fundamentals, talked instead about minutiae. It was like disregarding a building’s foundation, arguing instead about the color or shape of its roof tiles.

He was upset with himself. If he found his brothers’ priorities lacking, he should have been able to speak his mind. He did on two or three occasions. The monks turned to look at him, laughed, dismissed him with a few stern rejoinders. But later they began regarding him with suspicion.

In all likelihood, these brothers would have no misgivings about declaring steadfast loyalty to a new form of belief. They would probably call him a “traitor.” “Traitor.” Because he escaped. Or was he misjudging them, assigning them sins they weren’t guilty of?

What about those who liked him? Ioakim? Andreas?

Andronikos stands up on the rock from which he’s been gazing dreamily at the sea, the opposite shore.

Ioakim, young but mild-mannered. His blond hair with tones of brown cast by the shadows of his curls, his curly beard, his mustache, blond, red, all the shades in between. Sweet-tempered Ioakim. The shy novice who, in the early days, kept his distance from the monks, who learned little by little to slant the corner of his lips as if to smile, who learned to smile, to delve into his being, to ask himself questions, to accept answers after weighing them. Ioakim. Now in the grand assembly, it may be his turn. It wouldn’t take much — it can’t — for forty monks to swear an oath a few sentences long.

Or perhaps Andronikos’ absence had prolonged the ceremony.

If Ioakim has already come forward, he must have done so by taking a few hesitant steps; he must have cleared his throat a few times, then sworn the oath with a steady but soft voice.

Perhaps he’s angry with Andronikos.

Because he left without telling Ioakim, without taking Ioakim along, because he didn’t trust him enough to tell him where he was going.

Andronikos wanted to take this journey alone. He didn’t want to drag anyone into his ordeal.

This is why he first went to Galata, purchased his provisions, arranged with one of the sailors there to take him to Chalcedon. The boat carrying goods to Nikomedeia would drop him off in Chalcedon. Only one of the passengers might have recognized him. A textile merchant who had been among his childhood friends. They had played on the street, swum together. . . . One of them.

Andronikos had recognized him. He was now a middle-aged man with a conspicuous girth; laughing heartily, he kept adjusting his bright-colored garments, as if to draw attention to his success as a businessman. Andronikos made sure to keep a safe distance. The man would probably not have recognized — not that it would have mattered if he did — this fugitive monk with the long beard, his hood drawn over his long brown hair, graying in places, his discolored robe now more deep-green, deep-purple than black, like the variegated backs of crows.

But Ioakim would not have been able to figure out Andronikos’ whereabouts, no matter how hard he tried.

It’s almost high noon. Andronikos has to climb down from the rock to resume his walk.

What he’s doing is madness. The shimmering surface of the sea begins to tire his gaze. Time passes. It must be easier to walk along the rocks.

The rocks rise like steps. The crickets have become rowdier, sending out a dizzying drone. The scent of the breeze grows intense. The brush gives off a heavy, sharp, honey-scented odor. The pine, infused with heat, mixes the two scents into one, spreads it on the air.

O God, will I manage to find the spring soon? asks Andronikos. . . . He hears his voice echoing back. He hasn’t noticed that he spoke out loud. He should pay attention to this. One should always know whether he is speaking out loud or thinking to himself.

The sunlight flowing through the openings among the trees is scalding. Andronikos remains quiet. Making sure to keep his thoughts to himself, he continues to climb the hill. Ioakim can’t find him. Ioakim must be angry that Andronikos left without telling him. Ioakim must have taken the oath, pledging his steadfast loyalty to the new creed.

In recent days, Ioakim had been searching Andronikos’ mind, trying to gauge from him the right course of action, should the rumors that had been circulating turn out to be true.

According to these rumors, the decree was firm. Praying in front of painted images, kissing them, or expecting anything from them, was nothing short of idolatry. For some time now the people in the Eastern Provinces had been denouncing such practices, which, in their view, paved the surest path to perdition. Then there were the Arabs — a source of tensions for the state, known for their hostility toward painted images. As to why the Byzantine emperor would worry himself so much with these matters, it was not exactly clear. The decree deemed it unthinkable for a religion that forbade the worship of idols to make idolatry a part of worship in its churches. About the same time, statements had begun circulating to the effect that the Church had never openly or formally espoused a favorable position toward painted images. If this was the position of the Church, then why were the churches flooded with icons? Why did everyone, from the Emperor all the way down to the beggar on the street, believe that these icons were sacred? Ioakim was trying to understand this. Andronikos would have preferred not to even think about it, although he, too, was at a loss.

Idols, icons, all forms of painted images would be removed, a form of worship free of idolatry would be revived. This was the basis of true religion. The icons would not just be removed. When previously attempted, this measure had had bloody consequences, worse still, right at the palace gates. True, that episode wasn’t only about painted images, there was also a widespread sentiment among the terrified public that the Emperor was almost attempting to put himself in the place of Jesus. The Emperor, it was said, could ill afford to encourage such unrest again. The icons would be burned.

Burned. In order to squelch dissent, to discipline the resistant subjects, to discourage blind devotion to the old creed, now or in the future.

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