The Book of Devices by İhsan Oktay Anar

ihsanTranslated by Gregory Key
Koc University Press, 2018

Beginning with his first three novels (Puslu Kıtalar Atlası [1995], Kitab-ül Hiyel [1996], and Efrasiyab’ın Hikâyeleri [1998]), İhsan Oktay Anar quickly established a niche for himself in contemporary Turkish literature. A professor of philosophy by profession, maybe he did not initially consider becoming a “novelist” per se and there is a seven-year gap between these first works and the others that will follow. However, today, he is indubitably recognised as a historical novelist with a unique authorial style that combines an Ottomanesque language and postmodern narrative techniques.

While there is much to be said about the barriers before literatures in translation, there has also been a heartening increase in publications. Anar is one of the many Turkish writers who are yet to reach a broader global audience due to a lack of translations and only one of his novels is available in English: Kitab-ül Hiyel, that is, The Book of Devices. Considering there are many good Turkish writers not translated at all, even one work is important. Besides, not only Kitab-ül Hiyel provides readers with a good idea of Anar’s literary style and distinctive mode of storytelling, it is also a good translation. Gregory Key is very much in command of the novelist’s authorial voice and his translation of such a complex finesse is a great contribution to Turkish literature in translation.

Inspired by Al Jazari’s The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices and published in 1996, Kitab-ül Hiyel tells the story of three generations of inventors of devices. It begins with Yafes Chelebi’s story, a young and promising apprentice to the swordsmith. His skills are so excellent that he rapidly rises in rank, but his passion for invention proves so blasphemous among his fellow tradesmen that he is excommunicated equally rapidly. This pattern of rise-and-fall-in-fortune will define his life as his extraordinary talents and his ambition for inventions drive him and others to ruin. After him, his plans and ambitions are passed on to his slave and apprentice, Black Calud who is equally talented but not equally idealistic in his intentions. Black Calud, becoming more and more abusive in time, is obsessed about inventing the perpetual motion machine and his virility. As he brings his own destruction, he passes the mantel on to his adopted orphan apprentice, Üzeyir. The last chain in the lineage of inventors, Üzeyir Bey achieves a transcendental level of being, i. e. a dreamer (an imaginer, as is in the translation) and in his own way ends the mission of his predecessors in a dot.

Kitab-ül Hiyel is a fascinating novella about passions, inventions, and obsessions. It tells stories of dreams and dreamers and fears and nightmares. In addition to the curious stories that bring together equally curious characters, one of the most interesting running lines in the novel is the dot. The words “hiyel” (mechanic), “hayal” (dream) and “hile” (trick) are associated with one another in the Arabic script and with the presence or absence of dots in their calligraphy they open a path of associative symbolism in the narrative. It is this symbolism that breathes the novel its soul (to put it in an apt metaphor). Kitab-ül Hiyel definitely has a unique place in contemporary Turkish literature and offers a distinct story in a compact work.

“While device-makers sought the means of entrapping the forces of nature through an abundance of trick, dream-makers saw the entire world through the dot in their eye, and they believed that the Universe itself was nothing but a dream made real, and that one should take this dream as an example and create new dreams, because great happiness lay not in industry or technology, but in hulkiyyat or creatology.“ (pp. 132-133)

“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
The Tempest – William Shakespeare

For a more detailed reading of the novel (in Turkish, previously published in Notos):
“Hayal ile Hiyel Arasında: Kitab-ül Hiyel”

About the author:

İhsan Oktay Anar was born on 21 November 1960 in Yozgat, Turkey. He studied philosophy at Ege University in İzmir, where he also received his MA and PhD. He taught at the same department until he eventually retired in 2011. He published eight novels to date: Puslu Kıtalar Atlası (1995), Kitab-ül Hiyel: Eski Zaman Mucitlerinin İnanılmaz Hayat Öyküleri (1996), Efrasiyab’ın Hikayeleri (1998), Amat (2005), Suskunlar (2007), Yedinci Gün (2012), and Gâliz Kahraman (2014).

For a biography of the novelist in English, see the “İhsan Oktay Anar” entry by Emre Çakar in Dictionary of Literary Biography (373): Turkish Novelists Since 1960, pp. 28-33.

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