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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi

Ahmet Midhat Efendi

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Title: Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi
Author: Ahmet Midhat Efendi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1875 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 162 pages
Original in: Turkish
Availability: Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi - US
Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi - UK
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Felatun Bey und Rakim Efendi - Deutschland
  • An Ottoman Novel
  • Turkish title: Felâtun Bey ile Râkım Efendi
  • Translated by Melih Levi and Monica Ringer
  • With an Afterword by A. Holly Shissler

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Our Assessment:

B+ : somewhat simplistic in its de/construction, but winning, too

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi isn't outright prescriptive, but it certainly means to teach a lesson by examples. The examples are the two men of the title, representatives of life in (then) modern Turkey -- and specifically cosmopolitan İstanbul --, the one living it up alafranga -- 'in the European mode', (from 'à la franga', 'franga', as the translators explain, meaning "'Frank' or 'European' more generally") --, the other more traditional, always mindful of alaturka ways. Ahmet doesn't quite pit his protagonists against each other -- they are acquaintances whose paths only occasionally cross -- but uses their two very different trajectories as examples. As he suggests:

     Now when you look at these two young men from the moral point of view ... How perfect ! We are offering you two kinds of morality by showing you the behavior of two young men of our time. You're free to choose the one you prefer. You're also free to dislike both of them !
       (You can almost see Ahmet winking on the page -- and, yes, the game is rigged from the start. Boy, is it rigged.)
       Felâtun Bey is the spoiled son of a man who made a fortune -- and who was already "a man with an alfranga spirit", which he did his best to inculcate his children with, too:
Felâtun Bey has learned a lot ! He knows how to write, how to read. He knows French; he is intelligent, clever, and articulate. Most especially, his father has a monthly income of twenty thousand kuruş. What else is there to learn in this world ?
       He has a government job as a clerk, but hardly more than in name: he doesn't bother putting in more than three hours a week at the office, having better things to do with his time.
       Meanwhile, Râkım Efendi has always struggled but, through hard work and study, has managed to get a post at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Apparently that still didn't provide him with a regular salary, so he also continued with his studies while trying to earn money in other ways -- including, eventually, by translating, writing and tutoring.
       Among Râkım's few indulgences is the purchase of a beautiful fourteen-year-old Circassian slave girl, Janan. Recognizing her intellect and talents, Râkım helps educate the girl, making quite the refined young lady out of her -- though she knows her place ("Men and women together ! It's very bad ! It makes me feel uncomfortable. I'd rather stay at home"), and decorously spends most of her time well-hidden at home, with only Râkım's long-serving nanny for company.
       Râkım also tutors two girls from the English Ziklas family. And, of course, everyone falls in love with admirable Râkım: Janan pines for him and is ready to devote herself to him forever -- "Let me be a servant at your house, a piece of ash in your oven ... Let me be your slave ..." --; her main concern has to be that he doesn't sell her, first -- she is his property, after all. One of the Ziklas girls falls so head over heels in love with Râkım that it brings her awfully close to her deathbed. And then there's the older woman, Josephine, Janan's piano teacher, who knows she's too old for anything enduring to happen, but is certainly willing to have a good time with the strapping young man for a while.
       Felâtun has his female admirers, too, but after an embarrassing mix-up or two at the Ziklas-household can't let himself be seen there any longer, and instead gets involved with ... an actress. Which leads -- how could it be otherwise ? -- to his ruin. A foreign actress ! When all is said and done -- after she's taken him for all he was worth -- he denounces her as a "slut" and "malicious courtesan" -- but by then, of course, it's too late. As he sums up:
I indulged myself in pleasure, acted like a child, and made every possible mistake.
       Ah, yes, those alfranga-aspirations will come to haunt you every time.
       Meanwhile, Râkım and Janan ... oh, well, you know; the moral lessons here are very obvious, so the outcome really isn't ever in doubt. Happy endings, more or less (Felâtun's certainly isn't entirely happy, but he gets off easy enough, nevertheless) all around.
       Ahmet stakes out his position pretty blatantly throughout the novel -- nothing subtle here -- but even so he can't restrain himself, on occasion, just to make sure you get it -- just to make sure you aren't seduced by Felâtun having a good time, for example:
     Whose opinion do you approve of ? We approve of Râkım's. We know from experience that the fortune of a spendthrift, especially of one like Felâtun, is unstable.
       So, yes, Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi is almost painfully obvious. And yet even if the basic message is hammered home way too hard, it's still a very charmingly related story. Simple, in a way -- or several, beginning with the basic lessons (hard work pays off; adhering to tradition pays off; etc.) and outlook (the good get their just rewards), to the sunny-side presentation of this world, where very little that is truly threatening or bad happens -- and yet also more than just well-meaning. Whereas a Victorian novel of the same period would have tested Janan and Râkım's love with many melodramatic trials, there's barely any hint of doubt about exactly how things will go here, or many hurdles of any significance leading there. It's all very rose-tinted, through and through -- but with his winks at the reader, and his genial manner Ahmet pulls it off. (It helps that for all the simplicity, the novel manages for the most part to avoid descending into the truly maudlin or sappy.)
       Some of these characters are, of course, very thin: Janan is too good to be true, and Pauline just a ridiculous type, but that's part of the price Ahmet willingly pays to give his novel what turns out to be a surprising range. Though short, he manages to present and cover a great deal of life and society in those times -- the approach an interesting contrast to the far more rambling Victorian novels of the time, which, with its types and its lessons (and its romantic entanglements), it otherwise resembles.
       While there are arguably modern women in the novel -- Josephine is a strong, independent type, and Pauline obviously knows what she wants and how to get it -- aspects of the social order of the day are disturbing, certainly none more than Janan's status as property. Râkım's generous treatment of her threatens to whitewash this issue -- as if benign or even generous treatment of slaves could validate the institution -- but then Ahmet's novel is so black and white in any case that one can hardly expect any outright challenges to the more problematic aspects of the tradition he is defending.
       Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi is an unconvential novel -- by modern measures of fiction -- but thoroughly enjoyable in its quirkiness, characters, and even plot, and even if far too simplistic and reductionist in how it contrasts (or pretends to) Western and traditional ways, it still offers fascinating insight into the Turkey (or, more specifically, the İstanbul) of the time.
       A lively, accessible period-piece, Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi is well worth reading, and it's good to finally have it available in English.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 January 2016

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Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi: Ahmet Mithat Efendi: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Turkish author Ahmet Mithat Efendi lived 1844 to 1912.

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© 2016 the complete review

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