Sevgi Soysal’s Dawn was first published in 1975 and is only now translated into English by Maureen Freely, perhaps best known as the translator of Orhan Pamuk. Its origins lie in the declaration of martial law in Turkey in 1971, a time when Soysal lost her job as a teacher and was later imprisoned. Freely’s love for the novel is clear from her preface, but in describing Oya, a woman who has been released from prison into exile in Adana where the novel is set, as its “protagonist”, she does it a disservice as one of its great strengths, both technically and empathetically, is the range of characters with which it is concerned.

Taking place over a period of only twelve hours, the novel begins with a raid on the home of Ali, a man with no political affiliations who cares only for family. His nephew, Mustafa, a teacher, has just been released from prison, and is there in the company of his brother, Huseyin, a lawyer. Huseyin has invited Oya along, sympathetic to the loneliness of her exile. Also present at the table are Zekeriya, another relative, and Ekrem, a neighbour (Ali and Zekeriya’s wives serve but do not sit):

“They were strangers, or they had been until the police kicked the door in. Now they were initiates, facing a single fate.”

In the novel’s first section, The Raid, we experience that moment when “it took just one rough kick to break down the flimsy door,” but, although this occurs in the second page, Soysal goes on to build towards it for the different angles of various characters in the room. We learn of Mustafa’s anxiety regarding his relationship with his wife Guler – “She was one enormous question mark, looming over him” – one reason why he is visiting his brother and uncle rather than going straight to her. We also learn of the debt he owes Ali, who has helped finance his education:

“At the end of the day, a family had to be a single body.”

Huseyin has also been supported in his education; now, as a lawyer, he is expected to return the favour to his relatives:

“Every time they have a problem that needs solving, or a question that needs answering, they come to him.”

Unfortunately for this reason he is struggling to make a living from his practice. His initial contact with Oya is an attempt to gain a new client. She knows no-one in Adana and, until the raid, has gone out of her way to be careful – only loneliness drives her to accept Huseyin’s invitation.

Having introduced her characters as the raid occurs, Soysal uses the second section, The Interrogation, to focus on prison life. Not only does she continue the story of those captured by the police during the raid, but she describes the previous experiences of Oya and Mustafa when incarcerated. This is the heart of the novel, with the characters poised between past and future imprisonment. Oya’s fears are different from Mustafa’s: she worries her period will start, and is called a prostitute simply for sitting at the table with the men:

“She longed to make a shell for her thoughts and climb inside.”

Both Oya and Mustafa doubt they have the courage or skills to cope with the torture that may come with interrogation. “A committed activist behaves differently from an indifferent bystander,” Oya thinks to herself:

“What if I really did belong to an illegal organisation? I’d have been a disgrace, an absolute disgrace!”

Mustafa, meanwhile, finds it difficult to stay quiet: “It took more than honesty, courage and commitment to stay silent.” In both cases, memories of prison return. Mustafa remembers his interrogations there – “What made torture unbearable was wanting it to end.” Oya remembers how the women were assaulted with truncheons. Ironically, only Ali, entirely innocent, is beaten up.

The final section of the novel, like the novel itself, is entitled Dawn, a dawn which follows the imprisonment of the night. Whether it can be seen as hopeful will be for each reader to decide – certainly, it is not entirely pessimistic. One reason for this is the depth with which Soysal imbues her characters. By the novel’s end you may well feel you, too, have spent a night in the cells with them and developed that accidental comradeship. In one way or another, their lives will have touched you and, whatever hope you have left, you will hope for them. An important addition to the literature of oppression, Dawn will resonate with the experience of many even fifty years later, and its translation into English is to be commended.


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One Response to “Dawn”

  1. Books of the Year 2022 Part 1 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] to me until earlier this year when I read this new translation of her fourth (and final) novel, Dawn. Set a time of political repression, it centres on a police raid during which the novel’s […]

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