Sait Faik Abasıyanık’s Selected Stories are tales that beguile all for their brevity

The influential Turkish writer's collection of short stories is often bizzare but never boring.
The short-story collection includes The Silk Hankerchief and The Hairspring, which we are told, have a special place in the Turkish consciousness.
The short-story collection includes The Silk Hankerchief and The Hairspring, which we are told, have a special place in the Turkish consciousness.

With the exception of your Salingers, Pynchons and Harper Lees, writers’ lives tend to be more quantifiable than their work. A useful biography of Sait Faik Abasıyanık is included at the end of this collection, A Useless Man: Selected Stories. He was born in 1906 in Adapazarı, went to school in Bursa and lived for most of his life in a grand Ottoman villa off the coast of Istanbul. He developed a talent for writing stories at an early age, and by the time of his death, in 1954, he was regarded as one of Turkey’s best-loved writers. In the words of his two meticulous tag-teaming translators, Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, Abasıyanık “wrote as he spoke, celebrating the beauty of the ordinary even as he painted in its cracks and shadows, its silences and secrets”. They also class him, appropriately, as “an original”.

We come away from this collection armed with enough knowledge about Abasıyanık the writer, but unable to categorise the writing. These are stories that are not so much unputdownable as unpindownable. Briefer and more open-ended than Chekhov, earthier than Borges and Kafka, less penetrating than Katherine Mansfield and D H Lawrence – yet as beguiling as all of them.

As short stories go, these are very short indeed. Instead of unfurling events and rounded character studies, there are compressed incidents and psychological sketches. In the little Abasıyanık gives us, so much goes unsaid, leaving the reader to infer and make sense of the attenuated thoughts and emotions on display. The best tales are terse, wispy, impressionistic snapshots of lives. Some begin in medias res, many end mid-flow. A large number takes place in winter, when the world is buried “under pure white meadows of death”. We meet fishermen, tradesmen, priests and poets. Thieves and gangsters throng seedy taverns and nightclubs. Many stories are told from the points of view of young sons, who either look up to or away from their guardians. And then there are the tales that play out in coffee houses revolving around the gossip of punters and proprietors.

Two of Abasıyanık’s most famous stories are here – The Silk Handkerchief and The Hairspring – and have, the translators reveal, a special place in the Turkish consciousness. However, they are short to the point of fleeting; any attempt to distil their essence in a synopsis would only render them trivial and insubstantial. It seems more productive to focus on the stories that are marginally less elusory. Wedding Night follows a teenage boy through the stages of his arranged marriage. His terror is palpable: he hasn’t been this afraid since his circumcision. Not a lot happens, but the reader is affected by the emotive power of feelings (“his nerves were playing on the edges of his bones”) and the sight of the young bride and groom lying curled up at opposite ends of the marital bed.

In Who Cares?, an unknown woman descends from her house on a hill to the village below to ask various townspeople to help pay for her husband’s funeral. The bafflement, the scorn and, ultimately, the indifference of a harbourmaster, porter and doctor are conveyed in the lightest of brushstrokes, and the story’s elliptical and low-key conclusion judiciously resists any moralistic comeuppance or happily-ever-after convenience. More imaginative is Milk, in which a man starts drinking milk after years and finds it a ­nostalgia-inducing elixir. All at once the last four decades of his life are conjured up, from his first cry in the cradle to his adult exploits with raki, cards and women. The problem, though, is fending off “the flotsam” outside, who want to shatter the illusion and herd him back to reality.

One toxic tale that leaves a lasting impact is A Useless Man, about a recluse in Istanbul who hasn’t left his neighbourhood in seven years and who pounds the same streets fantasising about the same women, unwittingly eliciting disgust from the same people. Towards the end he drops in the casual confession that he also hasn’t washed for seven years. Abasıyanık’s Useless Man feels like Turgenev’s Superfluous Man or a benign version of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and the intensity of his delusions and pipe dreams marks this as one of the strongest stories.

Abasıyanık’s language blends the prosaic with the magical (“The sky was wandering the streets”; “Death came to Ali’s mother with a guest’s soft footsteps”; “Sleep passed through her hand into mine like a yellow sickness”), which adds vivid flourishes to his more opaque, fractured and disorientating episodes and portraits. It isn’t always easy to get a handle on these stories, but it is not difficult at all to be lulled and entranced by their strangeness.

Malcolm Forbes is a regular ­contributor to The Review

Published: January 1, 2015 04:00 AM


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