This article is also available in: Italiano
“Devil’s Yard” by Ivo Andric will make us fully discover the reality of prison under the Ottoman Empire, while revealing the stories of its prisoners, who were often innocent
«Devil’s Yard»: this is how a prison in Istanbul, under the Ottoman Empire, was called. There are specimens of every human type: sordid, innocent, abject, perverse, meek, crazy. They are locked up there for convenience, since “the police of Constantinople adhere to the sacred principle that it is easier to release an innocent person from the Devil’s Court than to search for a guilty person in the depths of Constantinople.” It is a vibrant world of dark, sinister stories, which respond to each other in subtle counterpoint and soon produce a sort of addiction to hell. The ruler of the place is the director Karagöz, policeman and metaphysical puppeteer, who precisely by exercising total arbitrariness and removing the weight of certainty from torture «made everything more tolerable and lighter»: a figure of such power that, after meeting him, even the readers of this masterful tale, like the inhabitants of the Devil’s Court, they will struggle “to imagine life without Karagöz”.
In the underworld (criminal and otherwise) of Istanbul
In this novel the great Ivo Andric takes us to discover one of the most important and at the same time least talked about places in the Ottoman Empire: the prison, one of the most fascinating and at the same time darkest places in the entire Sublime Porte; in fact, not only thieves and murderers were locked up here, and it also often became the home of characters such as Fra Petar, narrator of the story, or Camil, another key personality of the novel.
In “Devil’s Yard” Ivo Andric will make us listen to their stories and their laments, showing us his unique style already observed in “The Bridge on the Drina” and allowing us to come into contact with the most intimate and true humanity, the one so soiled by prison that it no longer has anything to hide, revealing itself completely of its Good and its Evil. Karagöz himself, who in the description seems like the devil himself, appears here as a complex man, capable of exercising both maximum clemency and maximum ferocity, with the sole objective of ensuring justice for the state and maintaining his control over Court.
The story of Cem Sultan
Another extremely important theme present in the book is the story of Cem Sultan, a real-life character often forgotten by history, to whom Camil is particularly attached, so much so that he sees himself as his true alter ego. He was one of the sons of Mehmed the Conqueror who, following the death of his father, confronted his brother Bayezid II for control of the Ottoman Empire, coming out as a complete loser, so much so that he even had to go to Rome to ask for help from Pope Innocent VIII. Once he ended up in the hands of the latter, however, Cem turned into a prisoner, becoming a means of fundamental importance to prevent his brother from advancing in the Balkans and thus losing his autonomy and political centrality.
I am particularly fond of Ivo Andric’s books and this one, despite being very different from “The Bridge on the Drina”, fully represents the style of the great Yugoslavian author, allowing us to better discover the marginalized people of the Ottoman world and of Istanbul specifically; a small pearl that cannot be missed if you are a lover of this city and that historical period.
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