#RivetingReviews: Humanity versus the Power of Evil. Petar Penda reviews ENGAGEMENT by Çiler İlhan

Writing about evil, Terry Eagleton claims that ‘postmodern cultures have had little to say of evil’, explaining this by our lack of ‘the depth that true destructiveness requires’. In spite of this, in Engagement Çiler İlhan takes up the gauntlet to dive headfirst into modern-day evil and its effects. Yet, as evil is juxtaposed with humanity, the novella also sounds a call for hope in the face of despair.

In this short and cutting tale, İlhan fictionalises the massacre of over forty people during an engagement party in southeast Turkey, which took place in 2009. Two villages, ‘Our Village’ and ‘Their Village’, have been in a feud over the land for a long time, with occasional revenge murders on both sides. The conflict is even more complex as the opposing villagers are related, sharing a surname. Unreliable witnesses, the late arrival of police and paramedics to the scene, uncertainty as to who armed the attackers and questions marks over state involvement weave a veil of mystery around the incident. Even the mysterious narrator ends his story by stating: ‘In places I may have said too little and in places too much. Believe what you will’. Regardless of this statement, the narration is suggestive and absorbing. However, by focusing on the uncertainties surrounding the incident and the narrator’s (un)reliability, the novella raises explicit criticism of the efficiency and responsibility of the state, as well as the question of its care for the people. 

The narrative is divided into chapters titled after the main characters. Each chapter unfurls a part of the incident and gives a deeper insight into the character’s inner life, dilemmas and defining personality traits. In this way, the author gives us the feeling of solving the puzzle over the reasons for the massacre. However, there are too many reasons given and we are eventually left at a loss. It is precisely this tension that makes the narrative so seductive and enjoyable.

The bloodshed is announced gradually. Early on, while preparing for the engagement party, the family realise they have forgotten to acquire eau de cologne – essential in such an arid climate to refresh the guests. Such an omission is immediately viewed as ‘a bad start of the day’, leading them to presage that ‘no good will come of it’. A series of other small but sinister mishaps follow: the coming of a sandstorm; gathering clouds. The idea that ‘there is no getting around fate’ is repeated several times. 

Although we know from the start that tragedy is soon to unfold, its monstrosity and the cold-blooded killing of men, women, and children strike us hard. The calculating and merciless perpetrators are juxtaposed with the victims and their suffering. Osman, who leads the attack, is an embodiment of evil. It is he who takes the decision not to spare even women and children. Presented as a victimiser of even his own wife and children, he is described by the narrator as ‘face-wiped-with-a-butcher’s-rag Osman’. His wife sees ‘the blackest night in her husband’s eyes; those same bottomless pits she saw every time he went off in the dusk to do the guard duty’. This account of his character, as well as those of his fellow murderers, contrasts with the portrayal of their victims to emphasise the theme of division in the book. Such divisions are abundant: Our Village vs. Their Village, oppressors vs. the oppressed, victimisers vs. victims, pride vs. humility … the list goes on. Opposed to Osman and his followers’ malice and cruelty are the warmth, generosity and love which permeate this novella. These traits are underscored through the relationships of the central family and several other characters. Their selfless support of each other is best seen in their respect and care for one another, and the expression of unconditional love through acts, not simply words.

The polarisation in the novella is also vividly shown by the seating arrangement at the engagement dinner, the division between men and women, ‘the living and the dead’. Just as in İlhan’s previously published collection of tales, which focused on the lives of Turkish women, patriarchy and its ideology of hierarchy and female submission is a driving source of misery in the book. From boyhood to adulthood, males are raised not to show empathy and understanding for women, as such compassion is perceived as emasculating weakness. The most heartbreaking passages are those describing mortally wounded Maral – our gentle heroine – as she holds the dead body of her younger brother Nisar and realises her family and other guests are all dead: 

‘She went into the room, to a strange smell, sharp and foul; the smell of death, she realised. A lake of blood … Among so many dead, she was trying to find the mouths of bodies able to make sounds when, with no more blood to lose, she fell onto a dead body. With one last effort, she opened her eyes and looked: Evin. With her last breath she put her arm around the brother who had breathed his last long ago. Seen from a distance, they were locked in an embrace.’ 

The evil of mankind is usually portrayed as innate, as a context-dependent product of our survival instinct, or as a response to the asperity of the surrounding landscape and violence of the state. When it comes to self-control, women fare better than men. Within the structures of patriarchy, the insistence on hierarchy and constant fight for domination mean that any deviation from these ideals is viewed as reprehensible social weakness. When Halil, a good-hearted character ill-adjusted to patriarchal society, is unable to perform his duties at the engagement dinner because of a severe headache, he is labelled as weak for showing his emotions and denigrated by the other men. His brother calls him a ‘pussy’ and mocks him, saying he will soon start bleeding once a month. However, it is Halil’s very ‘weakness’ that saves his life.

The interminable conflict between Our Village and Their Village, though based on a true event, stands as a metaphor for any conflict in the world. Peace is a temporary state, during which hate accumulates and eventually erupts into another conflict. As İlhan concludes in her afterword to the novella, ‘we can only continue to hope for change. And to believe in the power of love and friendship’. This is what ultimately allows Halil, one of the most good-natured characters in the novella, to survive the massacre, offering hope that society can be redeemed and humanity restored.

Engagement is one of those books that leaves one unsure what to admire most: the original writer’s style or the translator’s talent in rendering it into English. Kenneth Dakan masterfully conveys the cultural nuances of proverbial expressions, which, along with some words left in Turkish that can be interpreted from the context, create an authentic atmosphere and backdrop to the novella. The language absorbs us and transports us into the milieu of a small Turkish village, its inhabitants, their mindset and their pain, which is one of the most difficult feats that either a writer or a translator can achieve.

Reviewed by Petar Penda

ENGAGEMENT

Written by Çiler İlhan

Translated from Turkish by Kenneth Dakan

Published by Istros Books (2024)

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Professor Petar Penda is a translator, critic and poet who teaches at the University of Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina. His major monographs include T. S. Eliot: Poetical and Theoretical Contextualization (University of Banja Luka, 2012), Contemporary Anglo-American Poetry (co-authored with T. Bijelić and A. Nikčević Batrićević, 2021), Aesthetics and Ideology of D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). He has edited a dozen books, one of the most notable being The Whirlwind of Passion: New Critical Perspectives on William Shakespeare (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016). His translations into Serbian of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are due to be published in 2024. His poetry and translations of contemporary poets from Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as various contemporary British and American poets, have been published in a number of high-profile regional journals, as well as in the US and UK.

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