To the Spring, by Night
“I was small. And my village was small, I came to know that in time. But when I was small it was big for me, so big that when I had to cross it from one end to the other, I was afraid. . . . Fears are a bit like fog, as are memories. On the one hand, one dreads to go forward and plunge into a future without end, and on the other, one is afraid to retreat into the past and lose oneself in a plethora of events and tales.”
A nameless village exists on the side of a mountain, and life there is much different than what we know. There is no electricity, and only two of the villagers can read anything at all. The village and its fields can only be accessed through a small passage, just wide enough for a man and his donkey. Water is a precious commodity, wooed and nurtured and constructed into life-giving springs. Time seems frozen, with the same natural cycles repeating themselves endlessly, the same barren winter giving way to the same green spring.
This is the scene set by To the Spring, by Night, as it traces an unknown child’s scope of the unknown land and his experiences within it: a strange, almost magical childhood that is disappearing as technology progresses. Without any education or scientific advances to aid them (although men do go off for their military service, and planes sometimes fly overhead, indicating a somewhat present-day narrative), the villagers turn to an almost pagan-like worship of the world and creatures around them. Interestingly, only a select few villagers are considered “pious” and religious. Everyone else lives in fear of and respect for the sun, water, and wolves around them.
What we were told must have happened, and would happen again. It was not one of those jokes for which grownups, some grownups in particular, had the secret, jokes they tossed our way with malicious delight to fill us with uneasiness and fear. They were informing us of a truth, telling us about something we were going to witness in our lifetimes, one day. And if we had any doubt, all we had to do was ask the grownups in confidence . Knowing about such an event was better than being taken by surprise, they told us. We had to expect, we had to accept that we could be overtaken by night in the middle of the day. And we had to live with an uncertainty that made the sun a being that could stumble and disappear at any moment. It was like the sudden death they had told us about, and there was nothing we could try, nothing we could do about either of them. One more thing to mourn, one less certainty.
A solar eclipse is not the only thing that our narrator fears. An already difficult rustic existence is much scarier when seen through a child’s eyes. But even when describing the monsters, djinns, wolves, and snakes that may catch you out at midday or during the night, the text is all very pensive, reflecting on the stories that the “grownups” tell the narrator and the events from the narrator’s past that have become stories to him. The book reads almost like an extended poem, which makes sense, considering that this is Turkish, Kurdish, and French author Seyhmus Dagtekin’s only novel alongside his seven prize-winning poetry books. With Donald Winkler’s English translation, we are treated to a lyrical, almost atmospheric telling of the narrator’s memories and state of being during childhood. The rich, sweet images flow unhindered from one idea to the next, like a spring bubbling up from its source.
Some of the images are strange, though, which lends them even more appeal. The feminine sun is depicted lying in long wait for her moment of ecstasy with the bull of darkness—that’s the solar eclipse—along with a black snake slithering down a woman’s throat to feed on her entrails, as well as an antelope that comes back to life after being the designated meal for the wolf who was shepherding the flock. The narrator’s primitive understanding of the immediate surroundings and inner consciousness is expressed in quasi-stories, which give only an elusive understanding of what is known in the village. The tales are exotic, yet bear a familiar whiff of fables that exist in various forms all around the world.
But they never told us more, claiming that they didn’t want to upset us with the horror of such a vision. Besides, they only knew the beginning of this story. But why begin a story if you don’t know how it turns out? Do you ever know how things are going to turn out for you? they said—and yet there you are, a story, a story whose ending you will never know.
As a story, this book is a strange one. There are no clues to help reveal any identifying markers about either the narrator or the village until well into the last third of the book, when we finally learn that our narrator is male and the village is Kurdish (until then, it could have been anyone telling a story about anywhere with a relatively temperate climate). At first, that information wasn’t important—the focus was on the land and its mystical qualities that inspired reverence in all its inhabitants. But once the details come spilling out, they can’t be contained. We have to learn more, and so does everyone in the village. They get a schoolteacher for the first time, and literacy suddenly skyrockets. But the school becomes a catalyst for opening their world to a wider expanse of knowledge, and the memories are going to change. It seems that once our narrator learns his alphabet, the words he’s been using all along suddenly have no more meaning. Although the book was originally written in French, it’s interesting to ponder what type of language the narrator might have been speaking all along.
This is a gorgeously authored and translated experience from the talented pair of Dagtekin and Winkler, which is great to see from McGill-Queen’s University Press. The novel is enjoyable to read, although a very different read than the jacket copy would have you believe. The back cover implies a very present plot, so I was waiting for “something to happen” for a long time. Eventually, however, I managed to get over that and just enjoy the book for what it really is: a beautiful experience.