The Three Veils of Ibn Oraybi is packed with literary juice: It’s mythical like magical realism, yet historical in that we detect Ottoman and Caucasian outlines enclosing the edges of the tale. The novella is as plotted as a detective story, surprising us with its twists and turns, and it is a morality tale.
The core of the story revolves around the attempt to assassinate Ibn Oraybi because of a longstanding difference of opinion on the nature of religion (and life) between him and his old friend/now enemy Fehim Bey. How they resolve their differences is the plot from beginning to end, and it is a pleasure to read because of its unexpected qualities—just as one might find in a good detective story but if The Three Veils of Ibn Oraybi were just a plot without skillful use of character, theme, setting, and so forth, my esteem would not be great.
Fortunately, there’s a good deal more going on. When Ibn Oraybi arrives in the town of Zamoya with a scholar’s caravan of books, the locals are astounded to learn “the donkeys had been cajoled to walk in alphabetical order according to the volumes heaped on their backs.”
The lines are magical, and Vincent Czyz adds an extra dimension throughout with crisp, beautiful images like the above.
In setting the stage for this novella, we also find the foundation of a morality tale. The locals cleave to their to animistic beliefs. Slavs who move into the community are not allowed to build a church (and though it is not said, we presume this also true for people who are Islamic), though they are completely free to practice their beliefs. Foreigners are buried together regardless of faith, certainly something we would never find in the real Istanbul.
Like Ovid exiled in the Black Sea, Ibn Oraybi bemoans being washed up among the barbarians, but grows to enjoy country life. He also grows more tolerant of the local people and their surroundings. Cured of an ailment by a female healer Anna Nodravna, he learns that this barbaric Tazta woman is capable of a deep conversation on ghosts and dreams, even if she smokes a pipe. Ibn Oraybi begins to let go of his snobbery and class consciousness, and shares the wonders of his knowledge by demonstrating to the locals the wonder of his toys like his telescope. In turn, when they learn he is being hunted, they watch his back.
Carefully stitched into the center of the story is a frame tale presented as a ballad by a character called Villim Tamash. I won’t dwell on it for I’ve already said a good deal about the plot, but the ballad Tamash sings meshes seamlessly in the warp and woof of the larger story. As you will see, it is a fine way to bring a critical component of the plot into play. The denouement continues to bring unexpected pleasures. We meet Several brigands from Zamoya who escort the tale into its final moments.
Sometimes fabulistic writing can be too controlled; the author works so hard on the fairy wings of a character that their movements seem mechanical. This is in no way true in The Three Veils of Ibn Oraybi. The novella is lapidary, but like a stone you’d want to show off in the bezel of your ring.
If there was any problem it was that the morality play sometimes bounced on its strings. Czyz could have buried their biases deeper, which would have softened the editorial feeling that sometimes rides in the voice of the omnipotent author. But I also must be fair. Ibn Oraybi draws its blood from 1001 Nights, Canterbury Tales, and modern participants in this fabulist tradition, like Poe, Yourcenar, Borges, Calvino, and the like. This story holds the strong smell of good and evil because it is legitimately so often a part of such tales.
Above all, I recommend The Three Veils of Ibn Oraybi because it’s a pleasure to read. We can inhabit this story because the characters are so well written that I never questioned their motives. Whether it is the debate about ghosts and dreams, the feeling for the distance between Zamoya and Istanbul, or its satisfying ending, Vincent Czyz has created a story worth reading.
The Three Veils of Ibn Oraybi, by Vincent Czyz. Papillon du Père Publishing, July 2021. 49 pages. $7.95, paper.
Jeffrey Kahrs is the author of One Hook at a Time: A History of the Deep Sea Fishermen’s Union of the Pacific (Deep Sea Fishermen’s Union, 2015), funded through a grant from 4Culture, the cultural funding agency for King County, Wash. Kahrs co-edited an issue of the Atlanta Review on poetry in Turkey (Spring/Summer 2006, Volume XII, Issue Number 2), and also co-edited a section of the Turkish translation magazine Çevirmenin Notu on English-language poets in Istanbul in 2011. His writing has appeared in Talisman, Sky Island Journal, What Rough Beast, The Bosphorus Review of Books and other journals. Kahrs was a 2012 winner of the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Contest. He holds a BA in Dramatic Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an MA from Boston University. He was born in the Hague, Netherlands, and raised in California. He lived in Istanbul for 18 years.