In The Shadow of the Yali, by Suat Dervis, published by the Other Press, is set in a Turkey making the transition from the rule of the Sultans to its first steps as a Republic. Originally published in 1945, when the Ottoman Empire still cast a long shadow over the country, it’s no surprise it does the same with the novel’s central character, Celile.
Raised by her grandmother, a former slave in the palace of the Caliph who caught the eye of a minor noble and married into freedom and wealth, when her parents died, Celile had an incredibly sheltered and isolated life as a child. Along with her grandmother, and three servants, she lived in a crumbling Yali (mansion) on the borders of the Bosphorus River dividing Istanbul.
Like the aristocracy, the mansion and Celile’s family were stumbling into destitution and ruin. Her grandmother could only keep up appearances through the devotion of a moneylender who was selling off her estate in bits and pieces. When her grandmother dies Celile is penniless and forced to live with cousins.
Not only has Celile grown up incredibly sheltered from the realities of life, she’s also grown up almost completely lacking in human interaction. She doesn’t communicate her feelings or desires, not because she doesn’t have any, but because she’s not aware of their existence. She’s a fire waiting to be lite without even realizing there’s any kindling or fuel to be burnt.
She drifts into a marriage, and is happily enough married to a middle class business man, Ahmet. He on the other hand burns with ambition to be something bigger and better – all in the name of creating a better life for his beloved Celile. He knows she came from aristocracy and is insecure about how he is inferior to her socially and strives to shower her with material goods.
Which is what brings about the awakening of Celile. For when Ahmet meets Mushin, a wealthy investment banker, he sees a golden opportunity to expand his business. However, when Celile meets Mushin at a dinner with her husband and two friends, something happens. She dances a tango with Mushin and she cracks open.
Suddenly she’s attracted to another man. Suddenly she actually feels something. She wants somebody. She doesn’t understand what’s happening to her, but she doesn’t care. She has no notions of propriety or discretion – all she knows is she wants to be with Mushin as much as she can.
Mushin discovers he’s just as obsessed with Celile, however, he has suspicions. He thinks Ahmet is deliberately pushing his wife at him in order to secure financial backing. Ironically, he goes ahead and provides the backing in spite of his revulsion for Ahmet, because he can’t get enough of Celile, even if she’s only sleeping with him to improve her husband’s fortunes.
Of course, for the first time in her life Celile is actually feeling something and in one of the worst ironies Mushin’s doubts poison the relationship. He can’t believe the woman actually loves him and is nothing more than a tool for her husband.
Dervis has created something truly wonderful in The Shadow of the Yali. Not only has she provided us with a wonderful descriptions of her three main characters – their emotions, thoughts and inner motivations – we see how each of their preconceived notions of the world leads to their undoing.
We’re also give a wonderful depiction of Turkey as it struggles to come to grips with life in the modern world. Written in 1945 (and many of the details of Celile’s life are autobiographical as Dervis came from a family who had connections to the Caliph’s court and her grandmother had been a slave) we are given an amazing description of this turbulent country and the treatment of women in the society.
What does it say about a society where Mushin takes it for granted Celile is being pimped out by her husband as a means of getting what he wants? Or that both men see her not as a human being, but extensions of themselves and how being with her impacts their reputations? While they both profess to love her, that’s defined in terms of how they see her not who she really is.
While the language Dervis uses might be a little more florid than modern readers are used to the story is thoroughly modern. It may not be the type of empowering tale we’d like it to be, where the woman takes control of her life, but it depicts with horrid accuracy the life of a Turkish women in the 1940s, and probably by extension most European and Western women. Ornaments or servants with very little room to manoeuvre around either definition.
The Shadow of the Yali by Suat Dervis is a fascinating book with intriguing characters and surprising depths. Reading it will bring you into a world that’s both exotic and eerily familiar.