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Bilge Karasu: Gece (Night)

This is a decidedly Kafkaesque, post-modern dystopian novel. It is nominally set in Turkey but, as the country is not named, it could be any other police state – the Soviet Union, a Soviet Union vassal state, Nazi Germany… take your pick.

There are several strands to the novel. The first concerns the night workers, from which the novel takes its name. These are odious individuals, who appear in the (unnamed) city during the late afternoon. They terrorise the populace but, more particularly, they seize apparently random people and torture them, often to death. The next morning the populace finds the bloody remains – Karasu spares us no details – and tries to pretend they are not there, walking round them.

The tactics of the night workers vary over time. People start seeing what looks like bloody remains in the streets but the victims are often still alive – just. They have been beaten and had their bones broken but have just about survived. Initially, they, too, were avoided but we see one or two people trying to help them. The people of the city who have lost a friend or relative roam the streets in the morning looking for the bodies of their loved ones. We learn that these people are often selected randomly and tortured till they confess to a crime they did not commit or were not even aware existed, purely as a form of training for the night workers. These night workers are clearly symbols of the ruthless secret police who arrest people at night and torture them.

We are also following the story of a man who is under surveillance. The official watching him calls him N and knows him as they went to school together. He is given a piece of paper with a number on it by a friend, only the man is not his friend but a police agent disguised as the friend. Nor is the number a phone number, as he thinks, but a number with some significance known only to N and his former schoolmate.

We follow him as he wanders randomly around town, after receiving the paper. He ends up at the National Library, a building which has never been completed, despite numerous promises, and which seems to have been designed and built by different people, each carrying out their own work, in conflict with the other work. He wanders round the building – he is not meant to – still under surveillance and unaware, like virtually everyone is, that the core offices, i.e. the offices of the secret police who are watching him, are located there, before going to a fancy club, where he crashes what seems to be a lively party. He is met by Sevinç, whom we know to be a secret police officer.

Our senior police agent tells us that this club is also due to be dealt with soon, as it is he who is the next part of the equation, telling us about his work and about N. In addition to N and the senior police agent, there are two other people, the aforementioned Sevinç and another agent called Sevim (a woman, who also knew N as a child and who was married, but is no longer, to the senior police agent) who, because of the similarity of their names, are occasionally mistaken for one another.

The final part of the equation is the footnotes, in which the author tells us her approach to writing this work and the style and method she has chosen to adopt. She tells us, for example, that some incidents she mentions will lead nowhere and others are more significant or wonders whether the reader will always knows who is speaking. (We do not.). Indeed, we have five narrators – the senior police officer, N, Sevim and Sevinç, as well as the author, and all are not only unreliable narrators, it is not always clear (deliberately) which one is speaking.

The footnotes help us as well as confuse us. In one of the footnotes, one of the narrators complains bitterly about another of the narrators, saying that s/he has deliberately altered and confused the story. Have I not had my fun teasing readers? the author says on one occasion. And, towards the end, she says Sevinç is not a real person. I made him up.

All of this is leading up to major plot, with N going to a conference abroad, unaware that he is the victim of a devious plot which will cause him harm but help the country’s reputation.

It is a grim book and it is a confusing book. Can writing all this keep one from going mad? is the concluding sentence of the book and this, perhaps, gives us some idea of why Karasu is writing this. She is presumably trying to make some sense of the situation in Turkey that is so awful, that the only way to make any sense of it whatsoever is to write a a novel that is Kafkaesque, dystopian and utterly confusing to narrator, characters and readers alike. In this, she succeeds.

Publishing history

First published by Iletişim Yayinlari in 1985
First published in English by Louisiana State University Press in 1984