The kind people at Hesperus Press sent me a copy of Yasmine Ghata's The Calligraphers' Night for possible review. It's wonderful when the right book can be matched up with the right reader (if you recall I recently posted about art and literature crossing paths--a favorite subject of mine lately). This slim novel of just over 100 pages traverses the life of calligrapher Rikkat Kunt. The story is lyrically told. It has an almost dreamlike quality to it, weaving elements of magical realism into the story of Ghata's real-life grandmother who the novel is based on.
"I passed away on the 26th of April 1986, at the age of eighty-three". Thus begins Rikkat's story. "My death was as gentle as the tip of the reed dipping its fibres in the inkpot, swifter than than the ink being drunk by the paper. I took care not to leave any mess behind me; I tidied away my life and my calligraphic instruments." In a sense not a lot happens in this novel. Yet an entire life is lived within its pages. Rikkat is a calligrapher, practicing her art at a time when Turkey was becoming more secular. No longer would the Turkish language be formed using arabic letters. The calligrapher's language was the language of God or at least of the Koran, and now they would be thrust aside.
Not only does Rikkat narrate her story from the dead, but the dead talk to her while she is alive. Her mentor, Selim, bequests his calligraphic tools to her after his suicide. And it is through them and with his urging that she grows as a calligrapher. Her passion for the art guides her through her troubles and turmoils. She must endure two failed marriages and the loss of her second son when his father takes him away. It is only many years later when they are reunited. Through it all she has her art.
There is something of the calligrapher's arabesque to the story. Ghata's prose flows and meanders, it swirls like the motifs Rikkat lays on the page with her brush.
"My eyes close. The meanders swallow me up, the labyrinths bring me back to the surface. The zigzags, scrolls and spirals restore me to my life, to the happy and unhappy events in it. In the twinkling of an eye I recognise the path I have trodden; it is difficult to get away from these figures. Calligraphers are not free; escaping from a network of shapes is the same as disobeying the Most Great. Where are my lines taking me? My hand comes to a halt at the edge of the page; I will never know the rest."
This book was a wonderful little find for me. I loved the intertwining of art and life to tell the story. I imagine for an artist your art just melds with everything else in your life--they can't be separated. I think for Rakkat it was only her success as a calligrapher (or the burning desire to create) that made up for the failures in other aspects of her life. I wonder what other hidden treasures I can find amongst the other titles in the Hesperus catalogue? And just in case you are curious (I am fascinated by jacket design, so I had to ask the publisher), those boxlike structures on the cover are groynes, which are used to stop coastal erosion. They sound very utilitarian, but isn't the photo dreamy and atmospheric. It seems quite fitting for the story!