A Useless Man by Sait Faik Abasiyanik, trans. Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe

Paperback, 240 pages
Publisher: Archipelago Books (January 2015)
Language: English
Selected by Barbara Epler

“The weird combination of vast and modest, and the humble thing going on, reminds me of Robert Walser, but in a totally different register. There’s something so sad about it, but beautiful.” —Barbara Epler

Sait Faik Abasıyanık is one of Turkey’s greatest short-story writers, and until recently was relatively unknown outside of his homeland. An urban writer, he takes the reader into the darker corners of Istanbul, with unsparing portraits of its citizens. Published by Archipelago Press – one of the most interesting independent publishers worldwide – this is a unique collection in new translation that honours Abasıyanık’s mastery of the short-story form.

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Surely you’ve heard some of the names Istanbul has given its neighbourhoods? I can’t praise them enough. They’re sublime, truly sublime. Preposterous some might be, and misleading too, but, oh, the images they conjure up! Memories come flooding in so fast I begin to wonder if it’s a film I’m watching, here in the darkness of my mind.

Before you even shut your eyes, you see a mill churning water in the orchards of Dolapdere, and in each orchard, a well with an enormous bucket and an old workhorse with a scarf wrapped around his eyes; you hear squeaking as water drips from the bottom of a bucket; you hear clattering chains, as the mill horse’s muscles twitch and sunlight dances in the water flowing through the wooden runnels. The workhorse pauses, then picks up speed as a gardener cries out in surprise, and then we see the bright pink heels of a barefoot Albanian girl, and cucumber flowers in a coiled red moustache, and swirling cigarette smoke as an angry gardener in his 50s lights up; and a brazen bitch with a dark nose and a dark mouth and a wet tongue that is a shade of pink we rarely see anymore – but we see the fur on her back in hackles, and her tail circling angrily in the air…

You can reach this neighbourhood from anywhere in Beyoğlu and go as far as the bus station, but I took the most enchanting route of all: I walked down through Elmadag.

Elmadag is on a steep hill. Its houses stand upright in neat rows. Strolling down through this neighbourhood you will find neither apples nor mountains – just a pavement long since crumbled. Now you’re in a poor neighbourhood. You see little makeshift houses of wood, stone, sheet iron, and cardboard. You see naked children and coffeehouses stripped bare – no mirrors here, or straw, or chairs. People mill about in the neighbourhood square and their accents tell you where they’re from. Someone says:

“Brother, ain’t your girl in the factory?”

Another: “Hey there, Rüstem, they fire your olive-skinned girl again? She’ll be out on the street selling trinkets.”

This neighbourhood is as noisy as a festival – everywhere you can hear drums, wooden horns and fiddles. Old men sporting dark moustaches and thin trousers wander the streets, and their women make your heart jump with their pungent scent. In the mud you can see the tracks from last winter (no, not last winter, a winter long before that) and horseshoe prints unwashed by the rains that fell the day after Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople. There’s a sharp reek of ammonia along the base of the wall. It stings your eyes as you continue down the hill, past a printing factory that is busy churning. Most of the young men in the neighbourhood work there. The miserable unpaved streets surrounding it stink of pulp, ammonia and Moroccan leather. This is Watermill. When you’re back on the asphalt you can walk on to Yenisehir. Aghia Vangelistra looms like a feudal castle on the right, and in the evening, on saints’ days, the great church is alight with candles and chandeliers, and when you look inside you half expect to see counts and dukes in powdered white wigs dancing the polka with princesses in low-cut gowns.

Hundreds of Christian girls from here come of age in Beyoglu, toiling away in all the shops: tailors, barbershops, nightclubs, clothing shops, patisseries, bars, seamstresses, furriers and cinemas; their brothers become the city’s masons, painters, jeweller apprentices, lathe men, button salesmen, carpenters, joiners, and master locksmiths. Maids and servants begin life here, too.

You run into all sorts in this neighbourhood: remorseful pickpockets; heroin addicts just out of the hospital; fortune-tellers; Balkan immigrants from 1900 and 1953; old-world thespians; handsome young toughs with bob knives; petty crooks, con men and gigolos; mothers pimping daughters and husbands seeking customers for their wives; the smell of lamb cutlets, hunger, rakı, love, lust, good, evil, and the opposite of every word.

When night falls you hear whispering on the dark corners, and on every street, sweet nothings in Greek…

When it rains, it floods here first, and when other neighbourhoods in Istanbul are steeped in the cool dreams of an evening summer wind, the leaves on the trees in this neighbourhood are still. The coffeehouses and tavernas of Yenisehir are big and beautiful and the square is drenched in light and the smell of roasted intestines, fried mussels, oysters, scallops, red radishes, parsley, fried liver, wine, fish entrails and rakı. Here you see outrageously passionate men in their 50s wearing bell bottoms, pointy shoes and red sashes. Their hair is stuck to their foreheads, and their only forays outside the neighbourhood have been to prison.

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Maureen Freely and Alex Dawe are breathing fresh life into Turkish literature in translation, having previously translated Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s The Time Regulation Institute for Penguin.

  • A Useless Man