The Damned Yard, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, Forest Books, London&Boston, Dereta, Belgrade, 1992
The governor of this strange and terrible institution was Latif-Aga, known as Karagöz. This nickname had long since become his real name, the only name he was known by, not just here but far beyond the walls of the Damned Yard. It exactly suited his appearance and everything about him.
His father had been a teacher in a military school; a quiet, pensive man who loved books, who married quite late in life and had only one child, a boy. The child was lively and bright. He liked reading, but particularly music and all kinds of games. Up until his fourteenth year the boy did well at school and seemed set to follow in his father's footsteps, but then his liveliness began to change into rage and his quick wits to take him in the wrong direction. The boy began to change, even physically. He became suddenly thickset and unnaturally heavy. His clever brown eyes began shifting rapidly around. He left school and started to associate with café musicians and conjurors, although he did not have any particular gift for such skills, and with gamblers, drunks and opium smokers, without himself having a real passion for gambling and drink. But he was attracted to those people and everything connected with them, just as he was repelled by everything that belonged to the world of quiet, ordinary pursuits, steady habits and normal responsibilities.
Unruly and still inexperienced , the young man soon became involved in the dubious activities and foolhardy exploits of his companions and came into conflict with the law. And more than once. His father got him out of prison several times, relying on his reputation and his acquaintance with important people, particularly the Chief of Police, an old school friend. 'It is possible that a son of mine should break into houses, rob merchants and abduct girls?' the desperate father wondered. And the old, seasoned Police chief answered calmly but truthfully: it was not that he himself broke in, or robbed merchants, nor he abduct girls, but wherever these things were happening, you could be sure you would find him somewhere nearby. And if nothing were done about it, he would himself soon drift into crime. A solution had to be found in time. And the Chief of Police had found a 'solution', which he believed was the only one possible, therefore the best: to take the young man who had begun to go wrong into his service. And so, as often happens, the young man who had already taken up with gamblers and rich layouts became a good, zealous Stamboul policeman.
This did not happen overnight. For the first few years he was uncertain, trying to find his place, but then he found it where it could least have been expected, working against his former companions. He turned implacably on tramps, drunks, pick-pockets, smugglers and all kinds of wretches and idlers from the dark quarters of Stamboul. He worked with passion, with inexplicable hatred, but also with skill, with a knowledge of that environment that only he could have had. His old contacts enabled him to extend the range of his activity, because petty criminals betray the big ones. Information about people accumulated, his network of informers spread and was strengthened. Ten years later his exceptional zeal and success brought him to the position of assistant governor of this large remand centre. And when the old governor died of a heart attack, he was the only person who could take over. That was when his rule over Damned Yard began. And it had been going on now for twenty years.
The former governor, a hard man with years of experience, had an inflexible, conventional method of control. For him the most important thing had been that the world of vice and lawlessness should be identified as such as clearly as possible and separated as far as possible from the world of order and law. He was not particularly interested in the individual or his crime. In the course of many years he had looked on the Damned Yard as a quarantine and saw all its inhabitants as dangerous patients whom it was hard to cure, but who must be kept away, in physical and moral isolation, from so-called healthy, honest people by various measures, punishments and fear. Apart from that, they could be left entirely to their own devices. They must not be allowed to break out of their circle, but they should not be interfered with unduly, because nothing good or sensible could ever come of such contact.
The new governor immediately adopted quite different methods: in his whole attitude and his actions.
The first year , when his father died, Latif sold his fine, spacious family house in the New Mahala and bought a large neglected estate just above the Courtyard itself. Overgrown with cypress trees, it looked like an abandoned island or an ancient cemetery. It was separated from the Courtyard by a shady gorge full of fine trees and a whole system of various fences and high walls. Here, beside abundant running water, among the old trees he built a beautiful house, which faced the opposite side of the slope and so was protected from the south wind and the unhealthy stench from the arsenal and docks. The house had the great advantage being both very remote from the Damned Yard and very close to it. Its whole appearance, its calm and cleanliness, made it seem another world, thousands of miles away, and yet it was right next to the Courtyard , invisibly connected with it. Using shortcuts accessible only to him, Karagöz was able at any time of day to enter the Courtyard, straight from his house, unobserved. (As a result no one could ever know for certain whether he was there, or where he might suddenly appear.) The governor made frequent use of this situation. He watched over both the prisoners and their guards personally. And, as he knew most of the inmates, their past and their present crimes, he could say with some justification that he knew 'how the Courtyard breathed'. And if he did not know an individual personally, he knew his vagrant's or criminal's soul and at any moment he could stop in front of him and continue the discussion of his or someone else's crime. And in the same way, and even more closely, he knew every guard and his good and bad, public and secret traits and inclinations.
At least that is what he himself boasted. And so he remained his whole life in close touch with the underworld of crime which he had abandoned forever in his youth. But at the same time he was above it and remote from it, separated by his position, his overgrown gardens and by iron fences and gates inaccessible to others.
From the very beginning Karagöz 'worked from inside'. This unusual method made him both far more difficult and dangerous, and in certain sense, sometimes more humane than the earlier governors. Out of the impenetrable intertwining of these opposites was forged his individual attitude to the Courtyard and to all those human beings who passed through it like murky, sluggish river. Not even the oldest and wiliest guests of the Damned Yard could ever quite grasp the rhyme or reason of this game Karagöz played, a game that was entirely personal, full of unexpected, daring twists and inventions, very often the opposite of all rules of police work and procedure and social customs in general. It was in his very first year that he acquired his nickname - 'Karagöz'. And really this Courtyard, and everything that lived in it and happened there was a great theatre in which Karagöz acted out his life.
Dark-skinned, with abundant hair, he had put on weight and aged early, at least apparently. But his appearance could be deceptive. For all his bulk he could be as swift and agile as a fox when he wanted, and than his heavy, flabby body would develop a bull's strength. His sleepy, lifeless face and closed eyes concealed constant alterness and a fiendishly restless and inventive mind. No one had ever seen a smile on his dark olive-coloured face, not even when the whole Karagöz's body shook with inner laughter. This face could stretch and contact, altering from an expression of absolute revulsion and terrible threat to deep understanding and genuine sympathy. The movement of his eyes was one of Karagöz's great skills. The left eye was usually almost completely closed, but between the closed lashes one was aware of a watchful gaze, sharp as a razor. And his right eye was wide open, huge. It lived a life of its own, sweeping around like a searchlight; it could have its socket to an unbelievable extent and just as quickly retreat back into it. It attacked, provoked, and confused its victim, pinning him down, penetrating into the most hidden corners of his thoughts, hopes and plans. This gave the whole hideously cross-eyed face the appearance of a grotesque mask - at one moment alarming, the next comic.
When they talked about Karagöz, discussing every detail about him, the prisoners always spoke most about those eyes. Some maintained that he saw nothing with his left eye, others that it was in fact with the right, wide-open one that could not see. And in twenty years they could not agree, but they all shuddered at the gaze of those eyes, avoiding it as far as possible.
There was nothing of heavy dignity of an Ottoman high official in Karagöz, in his speech or movements. In each individual case, with each suspect, he would play a different game. He showed no shame or consideration, no respect for the other man or for himself. Whatever he did was unexpected, inspired. He would burst in at various times of day or night, approaching an individual or a whole group of prisoners.
'Pshee, pshee, pshee, psheeee!'
He pronounced these sounds in a varying pitch and intonation, always differently and always sounding as though he was amazed and disguised by this person, by himself and by the whole 'affair' between them.
'What is it? You are still here? Pshee! So, come on, what happened?'
That is how the conversation would begin, but it was never clear what was coming next. It could have been a long interrogation, in which every detail was known, with grave threats which were often only threats, but one of which could at any minute be transformed into a terrible reality. It might take the form of tenacious, ominous and irresistible coercion, but also of heartless clowning with no obvious sense or purpose.
If, in his anxiety to be free at least for a moment from Karagöz's pressure, the cornered, tormented man began to beg and assure him of his innocence, with either genuine or feigned tears, Karagöz could all at once change his behavior, smacking his palm against his brow.
What are you saying, you're completely innocent? Ah, why are you telling me now, for god's sake, man. Pshee... If you'd told me you were guilty, I could have let you go, because there are a lot of guilty people here. They're all guilty. But it's precisely an innocent man that we need. So I can't let you go. If you hadn't said so yourself, something could have been done. But as it is, now you'll have to say here until I find another innocent man somewhere, someone like you, to take your place. Now, sit still and keep quiet!'
And moving on through the Courtyard, accompanied by a few guards, Karagöz continued his game, for his own sake now, shouting so that everything around echoed, unable to stop.
Just don't let anyone tell me someone's innocent. Not that. Because there's no one innocent here. No one's here by chance. If he's crossed the threshold of the Courtyard, he's not innocent. He's done something wrong, even if it was in his sleep. If nothing else, then his mother had evil thoughts when she was carrying him. Of course, everyone says he's not guilty, but in all the years I've been here, I still haven't found anyone who's been brought here without any reason or without some fault. Whoever comes here is guilty, or has at least brushed up against a guilty person. Pshee! I've let enough of them go, both on instruction and on my own authority, certainly. But each one of them was guilty. There's no one innocent here. But there are thousands of guilty people who're not here yet and who never will come, because if all the people who're in any way guilty were to come here, this Courtyard would have to stretch from one ocean to the next. I know people, they're all guilty, only it's not written that all of them should eat their bread here.'
Bit-by-bit this whole monologue, spoken as he walked, grew increasingly animated, until it became a mad shout, cursing everyone the Courtyard enclosed and all who lived outside it. In his voice, under all its surliness and revulsion towards everything, there trembled, barely perceptibly, something like a tearful twinge and sorrow that this was the way the things had to be.
And the 'innocent' man now knew that he would have to sit here for weeks more without Karagöz so much as glancing at him again.
It happened that a week or so after this event, a group of prominent people from the city arrived to plead with Karagöz. They were the relatives of a wealthy young man arrested together with the bad company he kept. They asked Karagöz to release him because he was innocent. All of a sudden the governor changed completely, as though he had remembered something. He became thoughtful and serious, closed both his eyes for a moment, so that his face grew longer and his expression changed, and bent politely down towards the petitioners, to say in a thin voice:
Did you tell the people who arrested him he was innocent?'
Yes, of course we did, but...
Ah, now that was a mistake. Pshee, pshee, psheee! That's bad. Because right now they're catching innocent people and letting the guilty ones go. That's the new procedure. But as you have yourselves declared to the authorities that he hasn't committed any crime, he'll have to stay here.'
The people looked at his calm mask, puzzled, expecting Karagöz to laugh and turn the whole thing into joke. They even began half smiling themselves. But he remained implacably serious, cold and polite. And sent them away. It took them a long time to get over it. They told their friends the whole story, they went to complain to complain to influential acquaintances who shrugged their shoulders dismissively, like people who firmly believed that the devil himself, or perhaps more than one, lived in Karagöz and spoke through him.
But perhaps as soon as the next day, on his way across the Courtyard, Karagöz would come across that first 'innocent' man and suddenly take up the conversation of three weeks before. He would stride right up to him, pressing up against him as though he were going to devour him.
Pshee! What's got into you, how much longer are you going to stink the place out? Get out of here this minute, d'you here? Collect your bits and pieces and get out of my sight. If I see you again I'll have you whipped like a dog.'
At first rigid with amazement, the man would then suddenly gather his strength and just slip out of the Courtyard, leaving his few belongings for the guards and prisoners to fight over.
In this 'game' Karagöz could spend hours with a man accused of robbery or embezzlement, of rape, grievous injury or murder, he could act the fool, yell or whisper, play an idiot or bloodthirsty executioner, or a man of feeling and understanding, all in turn and all with the same sincerity and conviction. He would sometimes wrestle with such a man and sometimes embrace him, hit him or caress him, and keep thrusting his face into the other man's: 'Confess, damn your eyes! Confess and save your skin, otherwise you can see you'll end up on the gallows. Confess!'
And when he had achieved his aim, dragged a confession out of the prisoner and information about accomplices or the place where the stolen money was hidden, he would simply rub his hands together, like a man who had finally completed an unpleasant dirty task. Then he would throw off all those masks and let the affair take a normal course. But even then he did not completely abandon the man who had confessed, but spoke up for him, making things easier.
The endless, strange game of his was unfathomable. It seemed, in fact, that he did not ever believe anyone. Not merely the accused or witnesses but not even himself. And that was why he needed a confession as the only at least partially fixed point from which it was possible in this world, where everyone was guilty, to maintain at least the semblance of some kind of justice and order. And he sought a confession, hunted it, squeezed it out of a man with a desperate effort, as though he were fighting for his own life, squaring his inextricable accounts with vice and crime, cunning and disorder.
In most cases the game looked unnecessary and undignified, it was so twisted and distorted, but in fact it was carefully calculated and regularly achieved its aim. There was no repetition or routine in it, it was always new, growing of its own accord, so that it confused even the most hardened and frequent guests of the Damned Yard. At times it perplexed even those who had been working with Karagöz for years. Stories were told about it all over Stamboul, his behavior seemed at times so inhuman and mad, and then at others unaccountably considerate.
This all led to frequent complaints against Karagöz, of the most varied kinds; at one point there was even a possibility of his being dismissed; the viziers discussed him at the Divan, more than once. But in the end, nothing changed. They all knew that Karagöz was an arbitrary, idiosyncratic governor, but they also knew that Karagöz that it was not easy to find a man who would spend his life, day and night, with a whole underworld of criminals, vagrants and degenerates of all kinds and keep them in his Yard in some kind of discipline and order. So Karagöz remained in his position, governing the Damned Yard in his own way.
Everyone felt that this was the most natural solution. Everyone, including the inmates of the Yard. Here Karagöz was a constant topic of conversation, gossip, mockery, curses, hatred, sometimes even of physical attack. (Oaths involving the name of Karagöz's daughter on every possible occasion were an established custom in the Courtyard.) All the inmates followed and interpreted Karagöz's every action and glance, his every word, as though bewitched. They were afraid of him, and avoided him as far as they could. But these same people spoke of him and recounted his exploits with unacknowledged admiration. They were all accustomed to Karagöz , somehow adapted to him. They cursed him, but in the way one curses the life one loves and one's wretched fate. He was part of their damnation. In their constant fear and hatred, they had become one with him and it was hard to imagine life without him. And since there had to be a Damned Yard with governor, than this one, the way he was, was the best they could hope for. His way of working was monstrous and sometimes, for the individual concerned, terrible, but there was always the possibility of surprise, in a bad but also in a positive sense, it was like a kind of endless lottery and constant suspense for the inmates. This made everything, including Karagöz himself more bearable, or at least that was how it seemed, for the prisoners all liked gambling: certainly always weighed heavily on them. This whole metropolitan underworld of vice and disorder regarded Karagöz as their own; he was their 'swine', their 'bloodsucker' and 'scum', their 'bastard and son of a bitch', but their own.
That, then, was Latifaga, known as Karagöz.