A number of short story collections appeared on my reading list this year, an art form that is quite popular with translated fiction publications and one that appears quite regularly on the award lists. In 2014 “The Iraqi Christ” taking out the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize showing the short form is highly regarded amongst judges. This year I have reviewed thirteen collections of short stories and today one of those collections has made my top twelve of the year, a work that may shock a few with its inclusion as it hasn’t featured at all in “best of” lists that are floating about in the media this time of year.
Turkey’s Sait Faik Abasiyanik (1906-1954) wrote twelve books of short stories, two novels and a book of poetry. Spending a lot of his early life in Europe he returned to Turkey in his twenties, and the country’s pre-eminent short story award carries his name. There is a museum you can visit on Burguzada Island dedicated to celebrating the “father of Turkish short stories”. When he died in 1954 he left his entire estate to a foundation dedicated to looking after orphaned and disadvantaged children the Darüşşafaka School, which maintains the museum. Dying aged 46 from cirrhosis of the liver, it has taken sixty years for his work to be brought to the attention of the English speaking world.
The collection “A Useless Man”, translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, contains thirty-seven stories it is impossible to touch on each story in a review and they really do need to be read to experience the humanity and humbleness of the characters who live on the fringes of society.
Our book opens with “The Samovar”, our main character dreaming in the opening and closing of the story. It is a simple tale of an electrician who works in a factory, his mother wakes him each morning so he can go to work. She suddenly dies:
When we are confronted with death, we become great actors. Great actors, nothing more.
He threw his arms around her. He carried her to his bed. He pulled the quilt over her, tried to warm her body, which had already grown so cold. He tried to breathe life into her lifeless form. Later, giving up, he laid her out on the sofa in the corner. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t cry that day. His eyes burned and burned, but not a single tear. He looked at himself in the mirror. At the moment of his greatest sadness, could he not be granted a face other than the one he saw staring back at him? It was the face of a man who had lost no more than a night of sleep.
These are stories of simple people, stories of the masses, workers, farmers, fishermen, these are intimate portraits, snapshots illuminating the feelings and emotions of those on the fringes of Turkish society.
“The Silk Handkerchief” tells the tale of a young thief at a workshop wanting to steal a small silk handkerchief for his sweetheart. “Nightwork” a meeting in a small tavern. In a few short sentences Sait Faik Abasiyanik manages to create the environment where the reader can actually feel the surroundings:
Eventually, the lights came on, timidly and one by one, but almost of their own accord, without the flick of a single switch. With each five-watt bulb taking five or ten minutes to light up, it was an hour before they were flickering in the darkness, casting light on Omer’s foul temper.
Once the lights were on, the tavern took on its usual appearance. It was, Omer thought, nosier 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.
As the chronological order progresses we see more and more of Sait Faik Abasiyanik celebrating the earth, celebrating nature and his environment. The story “Papa Efendi, tells the tale of an old man leading a simple life, worshiping the earth which provides he needs (besides women) and he is killed by idle gossip (humanity destroys nature). “The Last Birds” also celebrating nature, the destruction of the island environment (the loss of the birds and the grasses) and the simple things that have now gone missing, like enjoying the sound of a bird, walking on grass. A simple but moving impactful tale of progress.
“Four Plusses” is a story about the human mind, who do we seek out when we want to ask a simple question, like directions or a light for a cigarette? It is again a simple story of our narrator waiting and being asked a simple question. However within that tale are our own prejudices, our own fears, and our own self-doubt:
Most of us cannot make heads or tails of psychology or face-reading; rather, we proceed as amateurs, knowing nothing about these sciences, lighting our cigarettes, inquiring after ferries, asking for directions, or whatever else we need to know. Our habits take over – we lose all sense of shame. So why is it that they’ll pick me out of a crowd of young men? Is it because yours truly is a good man? I doubt it…They don’t chose me because I’m a good person. They choose me because I seem to be just the right man to ask. Does that mean I have a compelling face? What a fine thing that would be! There must be another reason. Are we shabbily dressed? Are our boots unpolished? Did they catch a foolish glint in our eyes? Forbearance in our manner? A kink in our nose? Something slack about our cheeks? Or is the knot in our tie a touch too shiny? It has to be something. It could be that I have something of the vagabond in me. If you saw a man jumping out of a car and dashing for the ferry – would you even think of asking him a question? If you saw a gentleman frowning as he drew deeply on his cigarette outside a restaurant he had evidently just left, would you even think of asking him for a light? If you saw a traveller dripping with elegance, would you ask him directions? Could you ever find the courage to approach a man wearing polished boots, to ask him why the crowd?
“A Cloud in the Sky” tells us of a silent man who speaks to nobody but his dog. He has crows feet in his eyes, but it is from squinting at the sun, not from laughter, as hearty laughter brings tears. He is the subject of idle gossip, which is all gathered for this tale. “Or if I were to say, “He wakes up in the morning with a heavy heart.’ What a ridiculous line that would be.” This story questioning story writing, gossip as opposed to facts.
As our stories unfold we learn more and more of Sait Faik Abasiyanik’s insecurities, the “idle chatter” of fellow villagers becomes a theme, people discussing other’s misfortune or hypothetical reasons for their idiosyncrasies are stories within stories. “I Can’t Go Into Town” one of the last stories in the collection is where our writer tells us that he is writing. He tells us he can’t go into town, but he cannot tell us why. He tells us the possible tales that have led to him not being able to go into town, which reveals more about the town characters than the writer himself. He keeps reverting to the tales and them not being true, but he won’t reveal why he can’t go into town.
One of the short story highlights of the year (you’re going to have to tune in to my last eight posts in this string to see if I’ve added more short story collections to my highlights of the year) this is a wonderful expose of minor people’s lives, similar to a number of other works I read during the year where the “ordinary man” also has a story to tell, this work shows the fringes of society in a humane light.
For my full review click here.
Source personal copy as part of my Archipelago Books subscription.