In an ancient Mediterranean city, a tradition is maintained: every ten years an archaic game of human chess is staged, the players (visitors versus locals) bearing weapons. This archaic game, the central event of The Garden of the Departed Cats, may prove as fatal as the deadly attraction our narrator feels for the local man who is the Vizier, or Captain, of the home team. Their romance (which, though inconclusive, magnetizes our protagonist to accept the Vizier's challenge to play) provides the skeletal structure of this experimental novel. Each of their brief interactions works as a single chapter. And interleaved between their chapters are a dozen fable-like stories. The folk tale might concern a 13th-century herbal that identifies a kind of tulip, a red salamander, which dooms anyone who eats it to never tell a lie ever again. Or the tale might be an ancient story of a terrible stoat-like creature that feeds for years on the body of whomever it sinks its claws into, like guilt. These strange fables work independently of the main narrative but, in curious and unpredictable ways, (and reminiscent of Primo Levi's The Periodic Table), they echo and double its chief themes: love, its recalcitrance, its cat-like finickiness, and its refusal to be rushed.
With many strata to mine, The Garden of the Departed Cats is a work of peculiar beauty and strangeness, the whole layered and shiny like a piece of mica.
Bilge Karasu (1930-1995) was born in Istanbul and his several novels include two translated into English: Night (Louisiana State University Press, winner of the Pegasus Prize for Literature) and Death in Troy (City Lights).