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The Hidden Self (2003)

The Hidden Self is the first book published by Kaya. It gained immediate recognition, especially by academics, and has been studied in the Turkish literature departments of a dozen of universities in Turkey. Kaya’s works continue to arouse interest in the academic world with their multi-layered structure, and besides many undergraduate thesis, several master’s dissertations have been written on them.

Synopsis of The Hidden Self (2003)

A silent home of an old couple who mourn for their son who is recently lost to a car accident. Their door bell is unexpectedly ringed, and there appears a twenty-five-year-old woman (Revna) who introduces herself as the fiancée of their son, with a suitcase in one hand. Without asking questions to each other, they begin to live in this silent house together, and Revna naturally adapts into the sad atmosphere of the house as if she had always lived here and they had already known each other. During this period, each mourns for the deceased man in his/her own way. They come together around the table at meal times, each takes a portion of the meal without speaking, and yet, after sitting silently in front of the full plate for a while, they, again, silently, and one by one, pour it back to the pan and leave the table, again, without uttering a word. They are coalesced by their mourning for the same person, and the lost man symbolizes something different for each of them.

The narrator of the first chapter, who is an old woman, and also an academic in the field of psychology, is writing a book about the nature of suffering whilst trying to deal with her loss, and finds solace in the presence of Revna in the house, as Revna is another woman who adores her son (Reha). The narrator portrays the humble, sober, yet strong and decisive young woman in detail, seems to get strength from her dignity, and says they simply know nothing about her past, where she was born, by whom she was raised, etc, and that she appears to have come from nowhere, as noone calls her and she doesn’t call anyone. When asked her once, Revna confirms that she has no family or friends, but doesn’t explain it any further, and the narrator doesn’t ask. Revna thinks Reha, who was a medical doctor publishing research against the industry of medicine, was murdered by the medical mafia he had been threatened by repeatedly, and studies the deceased man’s research papers to find evidence.

At the end of the first chapter, Revna brings a cup of coffee to the narrator who is sitting at the parlor on her own, as they sit at two different corners of the room and sip their coffee without speaking a word and staring at vacancy every night as a ritual repeating itself for about a year now. However, this time, the porcelain cup falls down and breaks into pieces whilst Revna bends down to offer it to the narrator. The narrator watches the porcelain turning into glass on the floor (which, we don’t know, whether a phantasy or something that is meant to be real is). When Revna, in an attempt to clean the floor, means to bend, the narrator holds her arm and says “Don’t. Not now. I love the smell.” “So do I”, Revna replies. Then she also sits down, and for a moment, they close their eyes within the strong smell of coffee taking hold of the whole room. The rest of the novel is composed of what crosses each of the women’s mind in that moment they sit their eyes closed and how these two differents pasts, revived by the smell of coffee, both contrast and intersect.

After this first chapter, The Hidden Self continues in sequential chapters narrated by two different voices and accordingly titled “Revna tells”, and “The Hidden Self tells” in which, the anonymous narrator tells the story of Bihter. Each of the two stories begins with a scene in which the characters inwardly respond to the smell of coffee, although differently (coffee smell means two different things for the two women).

The second chapter, narrated by Revna, opens with Revna’s arrival to a big house by the Bosphorus called The Burnt Mansion in Istanbul to work as a nurse for a twelve year old orphaned girl. At the time, Revna is 18, and has left the orphanage she has been living in at a different city for fifteen years for the first time to study photography at college. Having graduated from a nursing school, her plan is to work as a nurse at The Burnt Mansion and also stay there, whilst studying at university; however, she finds out the girl to be catatonic, a state she was totally uninformed about in the letters exchanged with the girl’s grandfather during her recruitment. Shaken, and thinking she is not qualified for the job, she contacts the much older brother and uncle of the child who are also staying at the house, and to her dismay, she finds them to be unresponsive to anything she has to say regarding the child.

These two men live in the past, completely preoccupied with what their life as a family was like before the big fire which destroyed their land that contained their paper factory, their business, wealth and happiness, and took the life of little girl’s grandmother, father, and mother whom -the latter- they especially adore and still live in the shadow of. They sleep during the day and work throughout the night in a huge hall on the ground floor of the mansion, writing an encyclopedia amongst collections of newspapers, photographs and old possessions -especially those that belonged to the child’s mother- that remained from the fire. Every time Revna attempts to visit them in this hall -which resembles a separate world in itself- to talk to them about the child -Cemre-, she finds her attention being diverted from the child -who symbolizes the “future”- to the stories they tell about their past -family- in an over-fascinated, or, even obsessed way. These two men never leave the mansion and seem to have lost their connection with the present world/reality, but it is possible to visit them at night-times, unlike Cemre’s grandfather who avoids seeing anyone except the maid of the house since he sequestered himself in a dark room upstairs after the fire.

Revna suffers from blackouts whenever a group of leitmotifs crop up. We sense the hint that Revna has a secret, that is going to be revealed towards the end of the novel: As a three-year-old, she was found with the body of her dead mother whose identity could never be revealed. She had spent days with the corpse. The images and sounds that surround the days spent with her dead mother trigger her deepest fears and consequential blackouts; and Cemre’s dead-like, mute state that Revna has to deal with on her own is another emotional challenge for her, as well as The Burnt Mansion itself, which resembles a deserted, worn out place, or a stone coffin built big, rather than a “home”, as they never cared to fix the mansion after the fire. Under the effect of the atmosphere of the house and the hardness of the life conditions she has to face with for the first time in her life -i.e., coming to live in a new big city by herself, having to support herself financially-, having low self-esteem against the life that feels too big, and therefore intimidating and overwhelming, she begins to hear noises at The Burnt Mansion, like footsteps coming nearer to her on the stone stairs.

It is during her attempts to find outside help for Cemre that Revna meets Reha, a medical doctor. Ashamed of having been brought up in a orphanage, and of her fearful experience with a dead mother who remains nameless, Revna’s usual reaction to her past, and current identity is to turn her back to them and build a “future” to run away from them as quickly as possible. Revna sees Reha as a step to become a part of a “home” and of society that she feels excluded from, through marriage. However, Revna resists meeting Reha’s parents and keeps delaying their marriage, feeling inferior to both Reha and the high and respected position his family keeps in society. She is in constant effort to build a future by building a name as a painter, which is also, a way to restore her unknown real name given at birth. Reha fails to understand why she regards her current identity too short to meet his parents.

While Revna is too obsessed with her future to face her present and past, The Burnt Mansion people who symbolize the opposite -obsession with past and disregarding present and future- and Reha call her to look into her lost past that she keeps running away from. Reha tracks down the possessions that are thought to belong to Revna’s mother and given to her within a box. As Revna turns towards her lost past, with the force of her fiancee / future, it turns out that some part of her present story is indeed illusional. Reha claims that Revna’s colourful, lively friend Seray, and her family that is composed of five young people -three of which are minors- trying to survive without their dead parents, are not real. This discovery leads to a radical change in the reader’s outlook on the reality recounted by Revna so far, and coincides with another discovery by Reha, that Revna’s father is alive and in a mental hospital for a long time. Although there are some people who see him as a modern Nostradamus-of-past rather than a historian with delusions, Revna feels ashamed of having a schizophrenic parent and the possibility of her genetic heritage of the disorder, and meets him only briefly, without letting him know about her identity. Reha dies when he is taking him to Revna by his car, which means, Revna’s both past and present die in the accident and Revna is now left alone with her self to face.

In the other series of chapters, an anonymous character -presumably called The Hidden Self- tells us about the story of Bihter. Bihter’s life is like an antithesis of Revna’s. She is born into a well-off, respectable family and seems to have a well-protected home life. Yet she suffers from incomprehension and as a result of shame of her own self, she develops a severe case of dissociation to run away from the present reality she cannot tolerate, which leads to more incomprehension. Noone amongst doctors, teachers, friends, family believe that she is not aware of the things she is doing, and punish her severely on the grounds that she ventures to fool them in order to attract attention.

Not knowing “what” the narrator is, we witness a struggle between her and Bihter. He or she or it is the only friend Bihter has as a child, Bihter plays games with him/her/it, yet, Bihter, not wanting to hear what he/she/it has to say to her, eventually locks him/her/it up in the attic from the small window of where, he/she/it can see noone or nowhere but the Maiden’s Tower for years, and where he/she/is is fed on nothing but Bihter’s leftovers she passes through under the door.

Towards the end of the novel, when the narrator begins to tell the story of Bihter again, “I” speaking voice narrating Bihter is suddenly interrupted by Kemal (Reha’s father) who asks why she has been talking about Bihter as if she is a different person while she is Bihter herself. He says that he has been listening to her talking on her own across the door for hours, which makes us wonder if all The Hidden Self’s recounts since the beginning of the novel were verbal and composed of Bihter’s talking to herself aloud in a room.

However, the narrator objects to this statement, claiming that a new self was born out of Bihter through motherhood, and that Bihter died when Reha was born. She lays out reasons why she cannot be the same person as the innocent, naive Bihter who couldn’t defend herself, as motherhood comes with having to protect your child -from cold, from hunger, from sickness, from anything, including death, a concept she is currently in debate with herself. Then Kemal alleges that Bihter was far from the person she portrayed, and gives us a different portrait of her character and her story, filling some of the gaps and changing our view towards the chain of events Bihter recounted. He says her memory fails her and that it wasn’t him, but her ex-husband who abused her and caused a miscarriage.

It is through Bihter’s story that we learn about the story of Revna’s parents. Bihter’s story briefly intersects with Revna’s mother long before Revna was born, when Bihter was in her early twenties. This is also when we realize that “Revna” is actually the name of Revna’s mother, which was given to Revna as a result of a misunderstanding when she was found. (Revna’s real name, that she so desperately seeks, remains a mystery. Questions left in the dark as such and fragmentation of reality in a way that only the reader can see the fullest picture are both typical of Kaya’s novels.) Like the name, the box of possessions falsely attributed to Revna’s mother are indeed Bihter’s, as she has to leave them with her at a critical point in the story. The notebook that is thought to be a fiction written by Revna’s mother turns out to be the diary Bihter keeps, and also, the novel itself that the reader is reading at the moment, The Hidden Self.

In the box, there is also a blue cloak that symbolizes Bihter’s shame. After reading a practice in Beauvoir’s book in her teen ages, she mimics the account and begins to wear it to cover her growing breasts, and does not take it out until the day she leaves it with Revna’s mother. (Bihter’s alienation from her body has a lot to do with her dissociation.) Through Bihter, we learn about the story of Revna’s parents, who are both unusual people and outcasts. Also, Revna’s state of being shadowed by her experience of remaining alone with a dead mother whose eyes are open but unresponsive and who is deaf to Revna can be read parallel to Bihter’s experience of her mother as emotionally unavailable and dead, and of her father, who is emotionally far away or non-existent.

Chapters that tell the story of Revna and Bihter consecutively become shorter and shorter, and towards the end, there appears a chapter without a title, where each character utters a short paragraph or a sentence consecutively, and these two voices merge, both in form and content through the loss of the same man; a son, and a lover.

Sitting at the New Mosque square in Istanbul on an early morning after Reha’s death, having nowhere to go -as The Burnt Mansion is also sold, and Cemre is now sent to a care home-, Revna, who has always turned her back against her past -the box-, opens it and wears the blue cloak. We realize that she goes from the square to Reha’s parents’ house in Izmir, as the novel begins with the sentence of Bihter, “She was wearing the blue cloak that once belonged to me when she rang the bell.” The novel has become a circle now, connecting its end with the point it began.

On the last page, which is composed of only a few sentences, we go back to the scene where the two women -Revna and Bihter- sit their eyes closed, surrounded by the almost tangible smell of coffee. We realize that the whole novel passed in that moment and even if this is the same scene, our perspective towards these two women and how their stories intersect and contrast is now changed and gained depth. Revna suddenly recovers herself and murmurs that she must have been lost in thought, bending down to clear the floor. “Would you like another cup of coffee?”, she asks. “Yes”, Bihter replies assuredly, “I would.” Then they smile, looking into the eye of each other, and the novel ends.

The Hidden Self  displays the drama of integration and self-discovery as experienced by two women from opposite backgrounds. Whilst Bihter resists against integration, Revna, ashamed of her uncommon origins, longs for it. Concepts such as family, society, love, past, present, future, loss and death have very different meanings in the personal matrix of these two women. However, in the end, both characters will find a way to compromise with society, which also means a compromisation with their own self. They lose their former bond with society -Reha-, and rebuild it with the help of its loss.

Praise for The Hidden Self

  • The Hidden Self  is one of the most exceptional novels I have read in my life, the like of which I don’t remember having encountered, neither in the literature of this country or elsewhere. An amazing success and narration of depth at such a young age.

Turan Oflazoğlu

  • I believe that any reader who has questions on self-identity will read this novel with intense pleasure and will get caught up within the story, given that the reader in question is courageous enough to let things get out of hand.
    Suavi Kemal Yazgıç