Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi: an Ottoman novel. By Ahmet Midhat Efendi. Translated from Turkish by Melih Levi and Monica M. Ringer, with an afterward by A. Holly Shissler. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016. Pp. xxii, 167. ISBN: 9780815610649 (paperback).
This book is a translation by Melih Levi and Monica M. Ringer of a novel written by Ahmet Mithat Efendi (known also as Ahmet Midhat Efendi), who was one of the leading figures in literature when the Tanzimat reform took place in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century. The purpose of this reform was to modernize the empire; however, by embracing Western literature, which also introduced its culture, it caused some major changes to traditional Ottoman literature as well as the traditional Ottoman lifestyle. The changes in the socio-economic and political life of Turkey at that time started to be reflected in their literature. As a writer in the Tanzimat period, Ahmet Midhat Efendi (1844–1912) wrote various novels with the hope of contributing to the new era in Ottoman literature that was affected by developments in the Ottoman social structure.
The novel takes place in the late nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire in Istanbul, Turkey. It plots the lives of two young men (Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi) who come from very different backgrounds. Râkım is a hard-working man with a modest background. He has grown up in poverty and lost his father when he was one year old. But he was supported by his mother and later by the care of their devoted slave woman, Fedayi. He educated himself in different ways, and took advantage of every opportunity later on in his life to secure a government office job. At the same time, he was teaching, writing, and translating to be able to afford a comfortable life. Felâtun, on the other hand, is the son of a very wealthy man whose wife passed away while giving birth to their second child, a daughter called Mihriban Hanım. He provided his son, Felâtun Bey, a fancy education that really did not bring him any expertise, accomplishment, awareness, or career, and he has been dependent on his father’s wealth. He is an aimless man who is wandering around and rarely showing up at a government post which was offered to him through a family connection. Felâtun Bey’s character resembles a typical “alafranga” dandy, as Shissler quotes in the afterword. He is indeed a slave to European fashion and their lifestyles without really knowing actual Western culture. In contrast, Râkım Efendi’s character follows a traditional “alaturka” type, with ethics and disciplines found in Turkish Ottoman culture. But since he also follows a modernized lifestyle, one can say that he is a combination of Ottoman and European male characters. He is educated in both Ottoman and European subjects, he translates works from French, and he also provides Ottoman lessons to two girls in a British family. He perfectly fits himself into the society that is expressing itself in new forms; socially, culturally, and politically.
Through the life of these two characters, Midhat Efendi, with a simple and sometimes humorous tone, brings the reader’s attention to the scope of the Islamic Ottoman Empire and the introduction of Western culture. Râkım Efendi, through teaching the British girls, provides them with the importance of culture and how we want to represent it to other people around us. Learning about all aspects of life, he shows that it is not ethically or religiously harmful, for example, to read and enjoy love poetry. Although the novel touches a little bit on the topic of slavery in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the role of women at the time, these touches are not detailed enough to be part of the main content of the novel. The author, however, touches on the marriage institution, and through Râkım Efendi’s private life, as uncommon as it might be, he says that a woman, even a slave, can be intelligent and educated, and at the same time able to freely choose a partner in her life.
The book addresses the question that Turkish society and the intellectuals of that era had struggled with: how would it be possible to enfold the Westernized life into the traditional Ottoman life, in such a way that one could be an educated modern Ottoman but at the same time be able to freely manage his private life in an Islamic-Ottoman manner.
Many topics such as ethics, religion, and culture in literature, especially when including dialogues and conversations with idioms particular to a language and culture, could be challenging to translate to English. Translation of this book is not an exception. However, the fine translation of this unique novel has provided the reader with a smooth reading, while also presenting the literary movement of the late nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, when the Tanzimat reform was taking place. In general, by unfolding the daily lives of the two characters in this novel, the author brings awareness to the readers of what Ottoman society was experiencing in adjusting their private and public lives to the influence of modern Western culture.