Sait Faik Abasiyanik ( 1906-1954) is still one of Turkey’s most revered writers who, amidst other literary works, wrote twelve books of shorts stories. The stories collected in A Useless Man are vivid tales of the marginalised and poor in Istanbul, stories which sparkle into life in Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe’s masterful translations.
The opener, The Samovar, is beautifully paced and glows with affection for the sights and sounds of working class Istanbul. A young factory lad, Ali, supports his pious Muslim mother who dutifully wakes him each morning, cooks his meals and generally cossets him. The story takes a sudden, tragic turn, but such is Abasiyanik’s skill that a small tonal change at the close lifts the story back up again to celebratory pitch, as the city survives and the narrative transcends Ali's loss. It's only six pages long but it leaves you kind of winded emotionally.
The tile story, A Useless Man is an increasingly unhinged tale told by a neurotic loner and store-owner, Mansur Bey, who hasn’t washed himself in seven years and deliberately avoids all friends and acquaintances. He confines his wanderings to three main streets in his Istanbul locality, gets excellent tripe soup in the one eatery he frequents, and buys his oranges from one particular fruit-seller only. Meanwhile, he lusts rather uselessly after a voluptuous young Jewish woman. One day he bumps into an old acquaintance who ribs him about his hiding away. “It’s not about giving up the idle life, it’s about giving up altogether, but I can't explain all that to him,” Mansur Bey thinks to himself.
He occasionally ventures on to streets in another neighbourhood, as if to test himself. “Why do they even make these cities to pack in this many people, when people don’t like each other any more?” he asks rhetorically.“I just don’t understand. Is it so that people can deceive and humiliate and murder each other?” The story ends with certain proof that the man is not just deranged but dangerous to himself.
Another story - I will leave it unnamed here to enhance the spoiler alert - ends with an implied suicide and it's interesting the way the author gets this across in the final paragraph. “She was the only woman on the ferry, and the only one without a ticket. But the number of passengers disembarking at Kadiköy was the same as the number of tickets. Not a single ticket more, not a single ticket less.”
On Spoon Island perfectly captures the spirit of boyish summer holiday adventures as a group of young fellows regularly take a boat out to an island haunted by the ghost of a Portuguese who was reputedly left stranded there by fellow pirates. Engrossing and curiously refreshing, Sait Faik opens magical doors to Istanbul as it stood back in the early twentieth century, with its colourful array of prostitutes, barflys and musicians who frequented its coffee and tea houses and drinking dens.