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To the Spring, by Night

by Seyhmus Dagtekin; Donald Winkler, trans.

Seyhmus Dagtekin, a Kurdish poet and writer born in Turkey but living in Paris, gently unfolds a story that reads like a cross between a memoir and a sacred text. Told in the first person and set in an unspecified past, the novel chronicles one boy’s childhood in an isolated Kurdish village in the mountains of Turkey, where every spring, rock, and falling star has a story that must be remembered and understood. Few names are given, little dialogue used, and the impersonal and inclusive pronouns “we” and “us” predominate, but the text is richly embroidered with myth and legend, political and social history.

Oral tradition informs the narrative, which focuses thematically on the way memory works. Repetition is used throughout as a unifying tactic. The repeated word “gaze,” for instance, recalls the story of tortoises that opens the book. “And so,” Dagtekin writes, “… tortoises have prolonged their time on earth thanks to their slowness and steady gaze that looks beyond the signs all beings make and sees them in the light of their earliest awakenings to the world.” The tortoises, a source of wonder and remorse for the unnamed child at the novel’s centre, were often killed because they damaged grape crops. “The grownups” claim the tortoises have long memories and know “how to leave their injuries behind them,” something that will have resonance for the child as he grows.

Toward the end of the novel, bulldozers and trucks herald the building of a school and the prospect of greater literacy, but poverty and hunger remain an ever-present threat. After a winter of famine, children are sent  “through the fields, in the woods and the forest” to “graze” and pass “green stools.” Choices are few, theft and smuggling commonplace. The torture endured by males during mandatory military service, the mysterious hangings of female relatives, and a massacre on the village outskirts are woven seamlessly into the narrative. Metaphorically dense and clearly told, this novel is a remarkable feat of storytelling that tempts the reader to dig further into the mysteries of the story and seek out more information about the history that informs it.