Shadowless: Hasan Ali Toptas

Translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely and John Angliss

I am honestly not sure what to make of this strange, hallucinatory book. Reading it is like wandering into a dream where not everything makes sense. In spite of its title, it is full of shadows and fog. In essence, this is a book about memory and what it means to exist.

The story takes place in a remote village in Anatolia: “there was no village further from the State than this one, and no village further from God”. The day after the muhtar is re-elected, the barber Nuri disappears. The muhtar sends out men to look for him but they return without any news. Another barber mysteriously shows up in the village and takes over Nuri’s shop. Then when the most beautiful girl in the village goes missing, things really start to fall apart.

Meanwhile, Nuri reappears in a barbershop in Istanbul. The people in the barbershop in Istanbul wait, forget the past and sometimes vanish. They either turn up in the village or are never seen again.

The story moves between mirror worlds that are in some way connected. Characters go back and forth between the two worlds, not sure how they got there. Narratives loop back on themselves. It’s not even clear how substantial these two worlds actually are. When the muhtar hears people knocking on his door, he expects the villagers but finds only insubstantial shadows.

People contain within them multiple versions of themselves, all of whom coexist; but sometimes two versions of a person are doing different things. One of the main characters is the watchman, who becomes increasingly depressed as things unravel. “He wafted from street to street, like an empty sack, blown from one wall to the next. He seemed to be shrinking as he went: leaving crumbs of himself on the roads and plains and cliffs and nights he left in his wake.

“But still, inside that crumbling watchman, there were hundreds of other watchmen, each very different from the next. One watchman found the energy to search for the muhtar from time to time. … One wanted to gather up his things and leave the village. One had a good, long cry.”

And there is a writer in the barbershop in Istanbul who seems to know more than he should about the village (it’s the only time the book uses first-person narrative). Do the people exist only in his imagination? Is he writing this story, making the reader part of the creative process, or is he just a part of the story?

The writing is beautiful and lyrical, but trying to make sense of it is trying to grab a fistful of mist. I think I shall reread it, slowly, and allow it to carry me instead of trying to bend it to my reality.

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4 thoughts on “Shadowless: Hasan Ali Toptas

  1. I’ve never heard of this book, it sounds interesting; it kind of seems like it’s playing with the multiverse concept. I’ve never read a Turkish novel before, but it sounds like something I might want to check out. 🙂

    1. suroor alikhan

      It’s beautifully written. Just go with it, and I’m sure you will enjoy it. If you want recommendations of books from other countries (ie, other than the usual suspects!), try looking at reviews in the categories Books in translation and The reading challenge.

  2. Interesting. I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children at the moment, so I can relate to finding it difficult to get your head around a somewhat abstract narrative!

    1. suroor alikhan

      Loved that book! I read it when it first came out (that dates me for sure!). No Indian writer had written like that before. It is quite something. Although a little challenging sometimes. How are you liking it?

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