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Hasan Ali Toptaş: Gölgesizler (Shadowless)

Our story opens in a barber shop in an unnamed city. It is seemingly a normal barber shop but immediately there is an air of menace: the clicking scissors raised high in the air, the customer who complains that he is aching all over, as he staggers from the chair, the barber’s eyes – something in them called to mind an executioner’s blade. The narrator is watching this. He is a novelist, waiting his turn for a shave. I am still writing novels, he tells the barber. We then slowly start moving to a more fantastical outlook: Perhaps there was a village somewhere out there with a barber’s shop just like this one, and a man dressed like a barber who turned his head now and again, to look this way.

Indeed, there is, as we move to the faraway village. We do not know now far away from the city the village but we know there was no village further from the State than this one, and no village further from God. The muhtar (local village headman) has just been re-elected for another four years. He does not seem too excited by the idea. The first time he had been elected, sixteen years ago, Cıngıl Nuri’s wife had come to see him with her three children. Cıngıl Nuri was the village barber, presumably the one imagined by the city barber. Cıngıl Nuri’s wife – we never know her name – tells the muhtar (we never know his name) that her husband has left her and disappeared, saying that he needed room to breathe, lest his soul vanish from the face of the earth.

The muhtar is concerned and over the course of the coming weeks tries to find Cıngıl Nuri. He goes off to report the matter to the police. Thousands of years later, the muhtar returned from the State. He sends people out to look for him but to no avail.

Meanwhile, back in the city, the barber there announces that he had seen a man with a goatee and said it was Nuri. Nuri will not be the last person to slip from the city story to the country story, without explanation. Meanwhile, the barber has lathered the face of a customer prior to shaving him, when he realises he has no razor blades left. He sends his apprentice out to get some more. This should only take a few minutes but the apprentice never reappears. The barber and the novelist wait for him in vain, while the customer falls asleep. The barber will later go and look for him. All three – the barber, the apprentice and the customer (who turns out to be a postman) – will turn up in the village, the barber and the apprentice assuming the same roles as they had had in the city and the postman to deliver a telegram about the failed search for Cıngıl Nuri who, by that time, has been back for some time.

Meanwhile, the muhtar is worried. Cıngıl Nuri had disappeared when he was first elected. The third time he was elected, three people died that day. Now he has been elected again, what will happen? Sure enough, Güvercin (it means dove in Turkish), the most beautiful young woman in the village, disappears. Her parents are distraught, as is the muhtar. He sends people out to look for her, to no avail, but then asks the watchman who is most likely to have kidnapped her. He suggests Cennet’s son (we never learn his name), who is immediately arrested. The muhtar and watchman beat him but he denies everything and there is no evidence to hold him. He is released but very much worse for wear, both mentally and physically. He, too, disappears but reappears with a black snake. Finally, Cennet’s son finds Güvercin and is again arrested.

While all this is going on, various legendary characters appear or are mentioned as being involved in the disappearances. There are Soldier Hamdi and Fatima of the Mirrors, a killer horse, a bear, fantastic accounts of the journeys of some of these characters, a ready interchange between the city and the country, characters merging with one another, and, despite the title, creeping shadows. All the time, the novelist is sitting in the barber’s shop, waiting for the barber and his apprentice. I was sitting in a city that was melting before my eyes. I had just one branch left to cling to, and its name was terror.

What is going on? It has been suggested that the book is Kafkaesque. While it is clear that there is the state, hidden away, it is more neglectful than threatening. If there is a threat, it is perhaps from nature, from fantastical events or things or even from within the characters themselves, none of whom seems particularly stable. Is it a parable or allegory of the current situation in Turkey? If it is, it is a fairly indirect criticism. Yes, there is the idea that the world is unstable and not what it seems, that strange events can happen out of the blue and that there is no explanation for them or, at least, no rational explanation for them. However, perhaps we should just take the book at its face value, a portrait of a world we cannot comprehend and, ultimately, we should do as the novelist finally does – go home for tea and stay with the family, instead of going out into the wider world or, doing like the muhtar, trying to control a world which we really do not and cannot comprehend.

Publishing history

First published by Can Yayınları in 1995
First published in English by Bloomsbury in 2016
Translated by Maureen Freely and John Angliss