This bilingual anthology opens a new chapter in Rémy Dor’s ongoing exploration of oral literary genres in the Turkic languages. After tongue-twisters and nursery rhymes (Central Eurasian Reader 1 (2008): review No. 583 pp. 469-71), the editor presents a collection of versified riddles from Turkey and Kyrgyzstan, founded on the remarkable corpuses collected by İ. Başgöz & A. Tietze (Bilmece: A Corpus of Turkish Riddles) and K. Ibraimov & A. Akmataliev (Tabïshmaktar) respectively. The material is arranged following a divide which is at once geographic and formal, with quatrains from the West and epic strophes from the East of the Turkic world, all of which nonetheless bear witness to the “great homogeneity of the Turkic culture.” Though riddles are generally composed in alliterated rhythmic prose, only such versified riddles as displayed determined formal patterns were retained in this selection: mostly heptasyllabic popular quatrains (a/ a/ b/ a) for Turkey, and heptasyllabic epic strophes (4//3) of variable length for Kyrgyzstan. The metric unity thus lends the collection its consistency. In line with R. Dor’s previous editions, the texts are soundly introduced, and rendered in a virtuoso translation.
The introduction settles the lexicographic and formal features, as well as the notional and functional aspects of riddles in the Turkic world. Quoting the French folklorist P. Sébillot, Rémy Dor insists that, far from the childish tone sometimes believed to define it, the ancient practice of riddling is a serious game. Its utterances stand somewhere “between enigma and prediction,” as it appears from their very designation. In most Turkic languages, the word “riddle” comes from the verbal stem “to know” (bil-) or, in some dialectal variants, “to find” (bul- or tap-). Hence the Kyrgyz tabïshmak — literally: “that which must absolutely be found in common” — refers to the addressee, summoned to solve the puzzle. In other Turkic languages, by contrast, focus is laid on the speaker, thereby highlighting the narrative character of the riddle, germane in form and content to the exemplary tale. One thing, in any case, is certain: However one wishes to call them, Turkic riddles see their strong agonistic power inscribed in their name. They evoke a relation in which he who utters the puzzle holds the strong position. Indeed, the pragmatic dimension congenial to riddles relates to the verbal challenges familiar to traditional societies. Though highly ritualised, they could issue in genuine contests or ordeals, with penalties levied on losers—either real or symbolic. Known to the whole of the Turkic world, this type of practice is attested in Kyrgyzstan well into the twentieth century in the form of aytïsh (“verbal contest”). The agonistic feature is further attested by a clear formal structure: riddles are introduced by such formulae as bil bil bilmece! or tap tap tabïshmak! (similar to tekerleme introits, or to the English: “riddle me, riddle me ree!”), in which the imperative challenges the addressee to answer the provocation. Symmetrically, it is often concluded by a mocking or menacing phrase, such as the Turkish “he who can’t tell is a fool!” (onu bilmeyen ahmak) or “Figure out this presage/ Or you’re out on Friday!” (Ya bunu bilmeli / Ya cuma günü ölmeli). Whether puzzles or teasers, riddles are best defined by their interactive and incentive virtue. Mostly concrete in contents, with reference to daily concerns and to country life, they also frequently play on erotic or obscene understatements which, in striking contrast to their innocent answer, lend them their salt and flavour.
The Turkish riddles presented follow the alphabetic order of their answers in French (indexed at the end), whereas the Kyrgyz strophes retain the order given them by Ibraimov & Akmataliev, each aytïsh forming a separate unit by itself. As his translation tries to keep with the heptasyllabic pattern of the material and to make felt the phonetic effects as much as French allows, Rémy Dor warns the reader that he has sometimes indulged in dialecticisms or archaisms. But the latter cannot be said to lessen the feat. Convinced of the cultural import of the brief genres of “orature”, the editor does make it clear that riddles, like twisters and nursery rhymes, are essential to popular literature. It is tempting to add: “A box without hinges, key, or lid, / Yet golden treasure inside is hid”!