Self-made men, easy French women and debonair dandies mingle on the streets of Istanbul in the 1870s. At least that's Ahmed Midhat Efendi would have you think, in his late 19th-century novel, Felâtun Bey and Râkim Efendi (Syracuse University Press, Trans. Melih Levi and Monica M. Ringer), a comic operetta that deals heavily with unexpected Oriental tropes, in the decades before the advent of the Turkish republic.
Nearly a century and half later, the didacticism of this prolific Ottoman writer lives on in the first English language translation of his classic work. First published in 1875, the novel chronicles the misadventures and troubles of two wildly different young Turkish men in Beyoğlu, Istanbul at a time of massive reform in the Ottoman Empire.
Midhat, a journalist, writer, translator, and publisher, wrote over 200 works in his lifetime. Born to a family of little means in 1844, Midhat worked as a shop assistant in Istanbul’s Egyptian Bazaar as a child, learning how to read and write from another shopkeeper, using this to his advantage by writing letters for additional income. Upon his father’s death, his older brother moved the family to Vidin, a port city in present-day Bulgaria, where Midhat first enrolled in formal school, and later finished his formal studies at a rüşdiye, a reformed middle school in Niş (now Niš, Serbia).
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, a Modernist Turkish writer best known for his novels, The Time Regulation Institute (1962), most recently translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, and A Mind at Peace (1949), would charge that Midhat writes “As if he is among the shopkeepers of the Spice Bazaar…as if he is engaged in a conversation with them…even after having gained fame, in his most mature period, his works would naturally reject a reader whose level is slightly above that of the artisans’ guilds.”
This posthumous criticism, however, mattered little to Midhat’s readers at the time, even though his work was also called “rushed and uneven,” according to scholar Robert Finn.
His audience at the time didn’t care. Literacy rates in the Ottoman Empire at the time are estimated to be low –ranging anywhere from 5-10% according to Nergis Ertürk to 15% according to Christopher de Bellaigue –compared to approximately 55.5% in England. Midhat’s popularity and easy, demotic language made his work a commercial success. Scholars today assume that his audience was made of lower to middle class with aspirations to rise, much like his characters.
“My goal was to speak with the majority, to try to illuminate them, to be an interpreter of their problems,” he wrote. Ultimately, this view of educating his readers held them in his thrall, and his mission to shape the new Ottoman subject in the Post-Tanzımat Era was also espoused by his contemporaries.
Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi, a novel about the titular Ottoman dandy and self-made, modern writer, fits in squarely with Midhat’s mission. Each character is a moral archetype, with little depth. Felâtun Bey, the dandy, is born into a wealthy family that custom-builds a house in Beyoğlu, the fashionable, European quarter of Istanbul because it is “alafranga” or in the “Western” or “modern” way.
For all of his father’s wealth, Felâtun isn’t well educated, with the spirit but not the depth of an alafranga education French and time spent at a middle school. In his adult life, Felâtun:
“…believed [that] a man with twenty thousand kuruş income didn’t need anything else, so he always went on an outing on Fridays. Saturdays, he rested from the previous day’s exertions, and on Sundays couldn’t not return to the pleasure spots, as going on outings on Sundays was considered even more alafranga. As for Sundays’ weariness, he recuperated from that on Mondays. On Tuesdays, although he typically prepared to go to the office, whenever the weather was suitable his desire to visit places in Beyoğlu and see his father’s old friends got the better of him, so he would declare that day a holiday as well. If he made it into the office at all on Wednesdays, he only found enough time to talk about his exploits for three hours in the early afternoon and usually returned home with two hangers-on.”
Naturally, with such a schedule, he only manages to spend three hours a week at the office at most. Râkım Efendi in contrast, born into a family with little money in Salıpazarı, Beyoğlu, makes his way first through working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and like the author, leaves his government job to pursue the more lucrative career of translating and writing. This super-human character is said to work for 17 hours a day, and to rest, eat, drink, and relax for seven.
To a reader today, these polar opposites obviously aren’t real characters. Midhat's exaggerated and didactic style and the hyperbolic situations his characters find themselves in signal this, as they would have even to his intended audience. Still, even amid the melodrama, the moral system one thinks is in place from having read Victorian literature is not the same. In an incident involving white sauce, in which Felâtun is “smeared below the waist with something that looked like a creamy drink,” Râkım, and the audience by proxy, finds out that Felâtun had not “stumbled and …managed to pull the whole plate” on himself after grabbing a windowsill, but that he had knocked it over while having sex with the household’s cook, a seemingly regular occurrence. The novel is blatant about the dalliance in a way that anyone but an Ottoman scholar would be surprised to find outside of a penny dreadful.
Nonetheless, the novel is an entertaining read even for readers who know nothing of the Ottoman Empire, nor of the Tanzımat reforms that radically transformed the Ottoman state in the name of modernization. This edition’s translators are to be commended for their attention to language, playing into the gossipy and conversational tone that was contemporary to English language fiction at the time. Without doubt, their translation of Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi will be read by decades Turkish Studies students to come, and will be an amusement to any reader.