Sometimes called the “Turkish Balzac” and, more often, the “Turkish Chekhov,” Sait Faik actually had a literary vision all his own.
A Useless Man: Selected Stories by Sait Faik Abasıyanık, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe. Archipelago Books, 240 pp., $18.
By John Taylor
Let me get one riddle out of the way: Sait Faik Abasıyanık (1906-1954) mostly wrote under the penname “Sait Faik,” so if you are wondering if the author of this splendid collection of short stories is the same man whose prose and poetry enthused you back in 1983 when Sait Faik’s A Dot on the Map appeared at Indiana University Turkish Studies, the answer is yes. This is the same subtle stylist and shrewd observer who, through his own experiences — “my first cry, my cradle, my mother’s milk, my loves and hates, my public face, my private life, my days of wine, and rakı, and cards, and women, and lust, and my many fine days in the company of friends” — left an unforgettable panorama of the daily life of Istanbul during his lifetime.
Vividly translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, A Useless Man collects thirty-seven stories. Sometimes called the “Turkish Balzac” and, more often, the “Turkish Chekhov,” Sait Faik actually had a literary vision all his own. Like Balzac and Chekhov (as well as Maupassant, to whom he has also been compared), he was essentially a realist, but his narrative approach tends to be more allusive and fragmentary than theirs. Sait Faik knows how to wield ironic touches and understatement. He evokes more than he describes.
Moreover, the sum of his evocations, in any given story, is usually more important than the plot: only rarely do events or acts lead to a surprise ending. Often, not much happens at all. Instead, his stories create compelling ambiances and draw sharp portraits and, in the process, self-portraits.
“By the Beyazıt Fountain” is a case in point. The narrative becomes an ultimately bitter self-portrait as Sait Faik sits on a bench at the fountain and describes what takes place in his mind and in his midst — essentially nothing of importance — while he is waiting for his lover, designated only as “you,” to arrive. He eventually gets involved in a trivial conversation with a man and a woman, but all the while he is thinking of his absent lover. But does she even exist?
Then the three of us fall silent again, as if to mull over the important things we’ve just discussed. Except, for me, there’s no doubt about it. There cannot be a thought I’m not ready to entertain. I can see you coming through the gate. Running over to me. I can see us arm in arm.
Just then the man says:
“Does the water freeze in winter?”
What can I say to that? I feel my sadness leave me again:
“It freezes,” I say. “It freezes and the children skate on it.”
He turns to the woman:
“He says it freezes in the winter, the children skate on it.”
What do you think, my love? Does the Beyazıt Fountain freeze over in the winter? Anyway, that’s what I told Sergeant Murtaza and his wife Hacer Ana. Yes, I said, it freezes over.
Based on these translated stories and the fifty pieces (including a few of the same stories) and ten poems comprised in A Dot on the Map, Sait Faik is uninterested in fictional invention, but rather bent on recording his on-the-spot observations as they come to him and how they come to him: acutely and transitorily. In “Papaz Efendi,” after recalling a church enveloped in the “blues and greens” of evening, he avows: “As a child I was always trying to get those evenings onto the page, perhaps I lamented the fact I wasn’t a painter or a child putting stickers in his notebook.” He is keenly aware that a moment sensed as full is no longer there.
In their afterword, the translators define his stories as “often opaque, fragmentary and oddly plotted, [yet] they never fail to conjure up a mood that lingers in your mind for days. They are fleeting meditations, blurred pictures full of explosive creativity; intimate portraits, odes to beloved individuals or avatars [. . .]; slices of everyday life, a casual remembrance, a crystallized childhood memory, a veiled and deeply personal confession.” Sait Faik is also attentive to the interplay of yearning and relentless ongoing reality.
Freely and Dawe also note that Faik was a devotee of the Garip or First New Movement, a literary movement in the 1940s “that called for a language that was lighter, brighter and less reverent” than the Turkish idiom restructured by “the Language Revolution [in the late 1920s] instigated by Ataturk to cleanse Turkish of Persian and Arabic influence.” In the story “Milk,” the writer-narrator notably claims that “[he] needed to forge a new Turkish.”
Occasionally, Sait Faik produces bold stylistic effects, such as the repetition of the conditional “might” in every single sentence of one long paragraph in “Fire Tongs and a Chair on a Winter’s Night.” But most of the time, he aligns polished perceptions: “He was wearing a raw silk shirt that he seemed to have slipped into without using his hands. It shimmered in the sunlight. The greasy tufts of hair hanging over his forehead gave him the look of an unruly child.” The translators underscore that “his prose is an odd [. . .] blend of the lyrical and a rough vernacular.”
Perhaps this delicately crafted “rough vernacular” explains why Sait Faik, who scrutinized all the socio-economic classes (à la Balzac, yet much less systematically), is particularly memorable when he focuses on the down-and-out and even the urban underworld. “Nightwork,” for example, is set in a tavern that is “noisier than hell”:
There were gangsters, laborers, fishermen, and Greeks and Armenians of uncertain trades; they talked about everything, though their lips were sealed. In this tavern even the innocent could hear thieves and pickpockets plotting their business without fear or loathing. In the tavern’s mirrors, they could look into the eyes of those turned away from the crowd, who were curled up, and unable to walk, and in those eyes you could see memories of an incident, an assault, a murder.
The Greeks and Armenians mentioned here (and in other stories as well) raise the question whether this story is a childhood memory. Sait Faik would have been a child and then a teenager during the Armenian Genocide (1915-1916) and the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), when countless Greeks fled Turkey for Greece. The non-Turkish characters conjure up the cosmopolitanism of Turkey before the racial purges.
In all events, the author’s eyes were open and his curiosity abundant. As a narrator, he is at the heart of life, gazing around, musing on what he sees, daydreaming a bit as well; one senses him not entirely participating in what is taking place but rather, as he puts it in “Four Plusses,” “just sit[ting] there, idling, cigarette in hand, as if looking for someone.” In “The Valley of Violets,” when he depicts his friend Bayram as “a big-boned man who spoke Turkish with an Albanian accent” and as hanging out “with the prettiest girls in the worst tavernas,” Sait Faik was surely at the next table. A metaphor for his art takes shape in “I Just Don’t Know Why I Keep Doing These Things”: the writer as a sort of thief. In the tale, the old man whom Faik is describing as the main character thinks that the author has stolen his prayer beads:
Then, suddenly, the old man was there next to me. In the dark he must not have been able to see my prayer beads clearly. From the corner of my eye, I could see him staring at those prayer beads. [. . .] The worst of it is that I hardly ever go to the coffeehouse now, and if he’s there sitting at the window when I do, I act as if I have something hidden in my pocket when I pass by. [. . .] I’m the worst kind of man. I’m a thief, without stealing a thing.
Did Sait Faik draw specific inspiration from the ups and downs experienced by his non-literary friends? It seems likely, even if the friends remained unaware of their contribution to this major literary oeuvre. In his introduction to A Dot on the Map, Talat Sait Halman writes that “immediately after Sait Faik’s death [. . .], a newspaper reporter interviewed some of his non-literary friends and found that these ordinary people—fishermen, youngsters, loiterers, the owners, the patrons of coffeehouses—with whom he had spent a great deal of time through the years, had little or no idea about his fame and stature as a writer or even about his having been a writer at all.”
Freely and Dawe report that Sait Faik “lived in an opulent family villa—a grand, four-story, wooden Ottoman mansion [. . .] not far from the pier on Burgazada, one of the quieter Prince’s islands, where he took shelter from the crowd and wrote.” Life for him was “idling with the local fishermen and tradesmen on the island, exploring its quiet corners with his dogs, and, every now and then, jumping on a ferry to booze until the sun came up with other writers in the bars of Beyoğlu.”
One of his stories is set on Spoon Island, another isle near Istanbul. At first, Sait Faik gives the tale a Robinson-Crusoe-like flavor as he and six friends row to the island: “Our ship had sunk and we were on a raft, we were bound for a deserted island, where we’d build a hut.” Yet with a typically deft touch, he then reveals that this is mere unarticulated musing: “Reluctant to share our secret Robinsons, we all fell silent; the better to keep the dream alive. [. . .] A single word would remind us that we lived on Burgazada.”
Even more deftly, the writer then shows how fantasy and reality interact. The narrator finds himself kissing another boy, Odisya, “with a desire that is as pure as it is secret.” A discreet homoeroticism in fact crops up in a few other stories. Talat Sait Halman explains that, “occasionally, [. . .] the author takes advantage of the fact that there is no gender in Turkish and makes it impossible for the reader to ascertain the sex of a principal character. In “A Story about Springtime,” where heterosexual attraction is in the forefront, reflections of light dart back and forth between two mirrors, one held by the narrator, the other coming from a mirror in a girl’s bedroom in another house across the way.
Yet in that story, as elsewhere, an increasingly grim melancholy accompanies the writer’s realization that longing is not rewarded by tangible love. The fleeting beams of light are as close as the two potential lovers will ever get to each other. The family moves away on that very day, now thirty years in the past from the narrator’s vantage point. “Never once have I flashed a mirror in anyone’s face [since then],” he concludes, “and never once has anyone flashed a mirror into mine. But if a light happened to pass through my room on a spring day, as fast as a swallow, I don’t know what would become of me.”
Sait Faik’s stories often end like this, with a sort of quiet desperation. He died rather young, from cirrhosis of the liver. Here’s the poem “Red Green” (from A Dot on the Map), which succinctly states what, all along, he knows is the ultimate horizon:
I come alive with the wind
That carries the salt of the sea to my shore
I feel how the fish swim
And hear the talk of the anemone
And sense the weeping of the mussels.
Love has a wing drenched in red
It has a wing
Green as poison.
John Taylor’s translation of Philippe Jaccottet’s The Pilgrim’s Bowl (Giorgio Morandi) has just been published Seagull Books. It will soon be followed by his translation of Georges Perros’s Paper Collage. Among his other recent books are If Night is Falling (Bitter Oleander Press) and A Little Tour through European Poetry (Transaction Publishers). He lives in France.