Reviewed for Nomadic Journal.
Nearly all of the stories gathered in Sait Faik Abasiyanik’s A Useless Man: Selected Stories can be read in the span of a short subway ride, say, between Oakland and Berkeley, or Brooklyn and Manhattan. The longest story in the collection, an excerpt from “A Cloud in the Sky,” I reserved for an unplanned jaunt to Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Come to think of it, since I have come into possession of Abasiyanik’s Stories, I have found myself pursuing loosely structured goals in the region just as an excuse to hop on a train and dive into another succinct tale. The stories in this collection can be read slowly and methodically, without any apprehension of not finishing. They are stories of village and urban life in and around Istanbul in the first half of the 20th century, ideally suited for traveling without aim. In other words, they can be read as they were written, in public, and in haste.
The narrator of “I Can’t Go Into Town” brags that “I can dash out a story while I wait for the ferry, balancing on one foot.” Indeed, one is rarely on sure footing with Abasiyanik’s charmingly unstable avatars. Like Robert Walser’s walking stories, these meditations on natural beauty and village life often dance around an ugly truth. Lost innocence, unrequited love, misanthropy. Turn down the wrong street and there they are, crystallized in the form of vegetables left out to dry in the cornice of a building. And the more beguiling and bucolic the tales start out, the less prepared we are when, in the words of translators Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, “he pulls the carpet out from underneath our feet.” The narrators of these tales share the proclivity (or the prerogative in the case of “I Can’t Go Into Town”) to write themselves into corners, to say, “I prefer not to” write this story. Beleaguered alternately by self-doubt and the will to entertain, they offer up instead scraps of anecdotes, crusts of bread and cheese rinds left over from a day in the life of a town. Thus, in the course of outlining the reasons why he can’t go into town we meet, in passing, the gluttonous deli owner, the shrewd baker, the barber with his stock of worn stories (Which will it be? Anecdote #1, or #2?), the worldly coffeehouse proprietor. We can sense the narrator’s genuine feeling for the place, which makes his reasons for demurring all the more obscure. “I don’t go into that bright white coffee house. I don’t sit opposite someone who doesn’t want to see me, and I don’t say a word to the proprietor.” And the reason? “I can’t go into town, and that’s that.” If this final explanation does not satisfy it is because Abasiyanik understood, as Vila-Matas observed of Walser in Bartleby & Co—that fictional compendium of disappearing writers—“that writing that one cannot write is also writing.”
But life goes on, happily oblivious to the vacillations of a recluse. Or not so happily. In “I Just Don’t Know Why I Keep Doing These Things,” the narrator, another lonely soliloquist, harbors motives that, in their inscrutability, flirt with the sinister. Here, the anecdotal layer, with its warm patina of camaraderie and routine, the baby fat of familiarity, is dispensed with, leaving us aghast in the presence of unadulterated malice. Our anti-hero, the one who doesn’t know why he keeps doing these things, sits in the window of a café watching the people go by. As a kind of a game, he is thinking of the inherent evil of man and the meaninglessness of life. Fodder for light conversation, no? An old man who also frequents the café becomes, inexplicably, the subject of his scorn. When the old man’s prayer beads go missing the narrator leads him to believe that he has stolen them when he has not. For reasons unknown to himself, he continues to taunt the old man. “I feel bad for that poor old man, too. I even go so far as to look into his eyes, as if to say I’ve stolen his prayer beads and feel no remorse.”
“A Useless Man” is the story of another stranger, an anonymous man who has not left the comfort zone of his neighborhood—all of four square blocks—in seven years. We accompany him as he makes the rounds, stopping at the café for a cappuccino, for a tripe soup from a street vendor, for a handful of bruised oranges, and down a street fraught with menace where an unrequited love, an olive-skinned Jewish girl, once lived. These encounters abound with projections and counter-projections, but no real communion. “The city is so huge, and everyone’s a stranger. Why do they even make these cities to pack in this many people, when people don’t like each other anymore? I just don’t understand. Is it so that people can deceive and humiliate and murder each other?” Abasiyanik’s strangers keenly register the malaise of a rapidly urbanizing landscape, and so turn inwards, to the familiar, the village within the city, secretly relishing the distinctly modern, alienated pleasures of the flâneur.
If Abasiyanik’s flâneurs occasionally find the world “picturesque,” they are a far cry from those “connoisseurs of empathy” described by Susan Sontag in On Photography, a collection of essays likening the street photographer of the 1970s to the older Parisian flâneur. In “Four Plusses,” the narrator, a genial face in the crowd, has the bad luck of being asked to read the results of a medical exam by a desperate, illiterate man on the cusp of landing a job. The results are not good. The narrator vows henceforth to assume an “arrogant air, so that no one else would dare approach me for the rest of the day.” The moral of the story: Having a sympathetic face in a crowd invites all kinds of human misery. But Abasiyanik cannot look away. If the stories in this collection tend to dwell on the “marginal” and the “deviant,” it is not out of any particular obsession with the grotesque. Like Diane Arbus, whose work was misunderstood by Sontag, it is his aim to capture the incongruence between mask and motives at the precise moment when it is revealed.
In Abasiyanik’s teleology, a petty thief is admirable insofar as he is beautiful, young, daring, and if the object of his desire is a silk handkerchief for his beloved. Here, Abasiyanik’s robust sensuality finds its purest expression: “In summer, and right through to the end of the walnut season, boys hands smell only of peaches and plums in this place and their chests give off the aroma of hazel leaves as they roam the streets half-naked in their buttonless striped shirts.” He looks the other way as the boy pilfers the stockpile he is supposed to be guarding. Another, more vigilant night-watchman shoots the boy as he is leaving. “He was dying. His fist was clenched. When the watchman pried it open, a silk handkerchief shot up from his hand, like water from a spring.” Other local heroes include Papaz Efendi, a pagan philosopher disguised as a priest, and Mustafa the Blind (“Carnations and Tomato Juice”), a laborer who persists at cultivating a patch of briars by the sea, paying “[w]ith the nails of `his fingers.” These are men who would never consider the “triumph over nature” a fait accompli, men for whom nature’s continual renewal is a source of endless joy requiring wise stewardship. Contrast these characters with Konstantin Efendi (“The Last Birds”), a greedy islander who shoots so many birds from the sky that they never return.
Sontag could have been writing about Abasiyanik when she wrote of Walser, “[he] is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small—as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable.” Abasiyanik’s anti-heroes are the “innocent monsters” of Baudelaire’s roving gaze, and they are possessed of better, more vital instincts than the feckless technocrats reconfiguring the vast ebbs and flows of nature for selfish human purposes. But fill a few square blocks with the Papaz Efendis and Mustafa the Blinds of the world, and throw in a few bold handkerchief thieves, and you’ve got a real neighborhood. But lest we indulge in false nostalgia for an innocence that we may never have had to lose in the first place, we are reminded of the man who could not and would not go into town. “I can imagine it now, all those little twenty-five watt bulbs glowing, and all the flies.” Perhaps this is reason enough not to go into town. But if you must, make sure to bring along Abasiyanik’s Selected Stories for the trip.