“Shadowless” by Hasan Ali Toptaş

Mehmet Rifat Öcal (photo: Mehmet Rifat Öcal

The misdirection starts with the novel’s cover. Hasan Ali Toptas’s Shadowless is, in spite of its title, full of shadows.

The story, a term that must be used advisedly here, is set in a remote Turkish village:


there was no village further from the State than this one, and no village further from God.


The village leader—the muhtar—has just been elected for his 16th year in office; right after he has been returned to office, a local girl Güvercin (or “dove”) has disappeared and is presumed abducted.

This is not the first disappearance; after his first election, the barber Nuri walked out of town, leaving behind a frantic wife and children. The villagers come to think they are cursed, and perhaps with good reason, as the coals of past incidents are raked over, human and natural violence ensue followed by madness and despair.

In parallel, a smaller drama plays out in a barber shop in the city: an apprentice goes missing, the barber after him, leaving a customer lathered up in the chair, all watched and supervised by the narrator who happens to be a novelist. But characters from the city barber shop start leaking into the other village narrative and vice versa. Characters, indeed, dissolve and reconstitute themselves, sometimes forgetting where they are and wondering how they got there. The chronologies contract and expand.


Shadowless, Hasan Ali Toptaş (Bloomsbury, April 2017)
Shadowless, Hasan Ali Toptas (Bloomsbury, April 2017)

It would be tempting to read into Shadowless an allegory of contemporary Turkey, but the novel was first published more than 20 years ago. Further, although the village is in Anatolia—people eat yogurt and yufka, Turkish flatbread—it really could be anywhere, anytime before the introduction of modern communications. If there is a deeper message to the novel, it would seem to be about the nature of reality rather than anything particularly political. Toptas has been compared to Kafka, but there is something of Lewis Carroll in this narrative where things are rarely as they seem to be and where thoughts, once imagined, become reality.

A novel of this kind probably defies definitive interpretation, but the involvement of the novelist as narrator appears to be an indication that the novel is a portrayal of the process of literary creation: characters and situations arise out of quotidien observations, they become nuanced, the backstory is reimagined to fit the evolving scenario, the fictional begins to inform the actual:


I wondered if I had been the sole witness of a great harnessing of recollections, in this barber shop in the avenue of a lost city: while I was watching the apprentice’s movements, talking with the barber, arguing with the foam-faced man about his dream and looking at the picture of the dove above the mirror, I had, without knowing, been wandering amongst the fragments of its memory… It could be that the avenue itself was not here in this world, but lost in its past, with all that I had witnessed in the barber’s shop today belonging to the realm of memory. The barber I had seen today – the man I believed to have shaved me once a month for as long as I could remember – was now wandering with his apprentice through the shop’s history.


Following the story takes some perseverance. It cycles back on itself; characters might actually be someone else; dreams might be reality, might become reality, or might not. When not hazy, it’s grim. But the framing becomes clear in the last few pages. It’s a worthwhile journey helped in no small part by the fluent translation from Maureen Freely and John Angliss.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.