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Ivo Andrić: Prokleta avlija (Devil’s Yard; The Damned Yard)

This is a fairly minor work in Andrić’s oeuvre but still enjoyable. The 1992 translation, The Damned Yard, is the accurate translation. The novel is about the stay of Brother Petar, a Bosnian monk, in an Istanbul prison. Brother Petar has just died but, before his death, had told of his stay in Istanbul. He has been sent there, with Brother Tadija, as he could write good Turkish. While he was there, the Istanbul priest had come across a letter addressed to the Austrian internuncio in Istanbul, complaining of the persecution of Christians in Albania. As the bearer of the letter had escaped, they arrested Brother Petar as it was felt Bosnia was near Albania and he was a Christian. He was kept in the prison, awaiting a hearing. The name Damned Yard was the name given to the prison by the people – we never know its real name. The Istanbul police put anyone there they want to investigate, innocent or guilty, on the assumption it is easier to get them if they are guilty. There are all types there, from hardened criminals to the (relatively) innocent. Fortunately Brother Petar is in ordinary clothes so is not recognised as a Christian. We learn about the various crimes of the prisoners and we also learn of Latif Aga, known as Karadjos, the Chief Warder. He can be friendly but he is also tough and frequently manages to beat confessions out of prisoners, such as the unfortunate Armenian Kirkor, who has been involved in stealing precious metals from the Sultan’s mint.

Brother Petar finds a quiet spot to sleep, with others of his kind. There are two Bulgarian traders who merely want to go home. One day they are joined by a young man called Djamil and it is his story and the story he tells of another man that account for much of the book. Djamil is initially with Brother Petar and the Bulgarians but then is taken off to better quarters, though Brother Petar meets him during the day. Much of the story of Djamil comes not from Djamil but from another prisoner, Haim. Djamil was the son of an older Turkish pasha and a younger Greek widow. His older sister died and as her daughter by her previous marriage had also died, his mother was very distraught and soon died. When his father died, Djamil was left with a small fortune. He fell in love with the daughter of a Greek tradesman but her family refused to accept him and she was married to someone else. He went away to study and returned a different man. He had, said some people, overstudied. One person he had studied was Sultan Cem, brother of Bayezid II (the 1962 Grove Press translation I am using calls them Djem and Bajazet). The story of Cem and Bayezid will later be told by Djamil but, basically, it tells of two brothers, with the younger, Cem, aspiring to the throne. He does not get it and is later held hostage, firstly by the Knights Hospitaller and then by the Pope, but, in both cases, purely for their own ends. Djamil seems obsessed with this story, partially because he identifies with Cem. However, the current sultan has a younger brother, who is in an institution, and Djamil’s obsession with Cem, is seen as a reference to the current situation and possibly an act of treason.

Andrić tells the two stories very well as well as following Brother Petar’s stay in the prison which, despite the unpleasantness, was clearly the highlight of his life. Both the character of Djamil and Cem are fascinating, with their frustrations at their situation, and it is certainly an enjoyable story, if not great literature.

Publishing history

First published 1954 by Matica srpsk
First published in English 1962 by Grove Press as Devil’s Yard, in 1992 as The Damned Yard by Forest Books
Translated by Celia HawkesworthDevil’s Yard, Kenneth Johnstone (The Damned Yard)