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The Turkish Chekhov: Some Remarks on Sait Faik

by Michael K. Iwoleit

It’s an irony that a man who carved out such a humble, peripheral existence, who never really managed to establish himself in ordinary life, who prefered the role of an idler and onlooker, with a keen eye for what other writers would have regarded as trivial or insignificant, has become such a fundamental figure in modern Turkish literature.

Sait Faik Abasiyanik is known today as the „Turkish Chekhov”, the chronicler of a bygone era of a multicultural and multiethnical Istanbul. He was, however, not concerned with painting large-scale social backdrops nor depicting grand sweeps of history nor crafting well-rounded stories. His view was narrow and personal, focused on the small dramas of daily life, with a heart for the dignity and persistance of simple, shunned people, the mindset of dreamers, weirdos and outsiders. The short stories that made him famous – he published only two fictional works that meet a lose definition of a novel – are sketchy and anecdotal, typically lacking a dramatic resolution, created spontaneously without a plan and rarely edited after the first draft was put on paper. His tales are located in a transient area between everyday life and imagination, between presence and memory, often tinged with a painful melancholy. He wrote a plain, unaffected prose, at odds with the more prominent Turkish poets of his time, interspersed with elements of other languages, Greek or French, that he was used to hear on a daily base. Many of his stories reveal an earthbound sensuality that made him discover small treasures and marvels within the mundane and ordinary, overlooked by others. The subjective, associative character of his writing, deceptively simple yet with an artful eye for details, has influenced many younger Turkish writers.

Sait Faik was born in 1906 in Adapazari in the northern Turkish province of Sakarya as the son of an affluent family. His father was a merchant and temporary mayor, his mother came from a reputable family with large land holdings. He attended the elementary school in Adapazari and middle school for two years. As Greek troops occupied the city during the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) the family fled and settled down in Istanbul after the war in 1924. Faik attended the prestigious grammar school Istanbul Erkek Liseim but was expelled in 1925, together with his whole class, as punishment for a prank and had to complete his grammar school education in a residential school in Bursa in western Turkey. The magazine Mektep published his first poem in 1925. He studied literature in Istanbul until 1930 with the goal of becoming a teacher. His father, who wanted to turn him into a businessman, sent him to study economics in Lausanne in 1931 but he put up with it for only two weeks, then moved on to Grenoble on his own account. He enrolled at a literary faculty for two years but only followed his personal literary interests for most of the time. The lifestyle of the bohemians he met there deeply influenced his own life and work. At his father’s behest he returned to Instanbul in 1934 to work in a regular job. He dabbled as a Turkish teacher in an Armenian orphan asylum, as a merchant for the grain trade of one of his father’s friends and as a permanently appointed crime reporter for the newspaper Haber-Aksam Postast. The latter job lasted for only two weeks but in that time he wrote reportages of literary quality that didn’t focus on the criminal cases as such but used them as an opportunity for atmospheric background descriptions. (When he returned to journalisic writing later he regarded his pieces as stories rather than nonfiction and took liberties that sometimes annoyed the persons depicted). He gained some recognition as a writer when he started to publish short stories in the magazine Varlik in 1934. His father died in 1939. Faik lived off his heritage and began to suffer from depressions and alcoholism. For the last decade of his life he lived almost year-round in a house on the Princes’ Island Burguz. He was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis in 1948. Only strict abstinence from alcohol could have saved him but he never managed to stay sober for long. In 1951 he travelled to Paris to receive a treatment but was afraid to die in a foreign country and returned home after just five days. He became a honorary member of the International Mark Twain Society in 1953 for his contributions to modern literature. In 1954 he died of liver cirrhosis, with just 48 years. He was buried in the Zincirlikuyu graveyard in northern Istanbul, one of the few graveyards in the city without strict seperation by religion, where other well-known writers are buried too. His mother donated the Said Faik Prize for short fiction in 1955, one of Turkey’s most prestigious literary prizes. His house on Burguz became a museum in 1964. His short stories are required reading for Turkish school children today. In 2010 the contemporary writers of his home country named him the greatest Turkish writer ever.

Faik seems to have been anything but a pleasant person. His surroundings regarded him as an „aylak“ (idler) and rejected his lifestyle. Although he made many contacts in bars and coffeehouses – among them with prominent writers such Nazim Hikmet, Orhan Kemal and Yasar Kemal – he always remained an outsider and misfit who didn’t enter into close friendships. Fellow writers characterized him as gruff and cantankerous. He spent, by his own admission, most of his time with walks, fishing, visiting coffeehouses and drinking. He was never married and suffered from loneliness. Although intensely attracted to women, he was awkward in dealing with the opposite sex and rarely advanced beyond the role of a distant admirer. His mother who he lived with until his death seems to have counteracted a possible marriage two times. There are hints that he had homosexual veins and showed erotic interests into boys.

Faik started his writing career as a poet and kept a natural disposition towards poetry even after he had turned to writing short stories. He published 13 collections with about 180 short stories and is regarded, along with Sabbahatin Ali, as the forerunner of modern Turkish short fiction who introduced new subjects and narrative styles. Most of his stories are set in Istanbul and the surrounding islands, some are set in France or have some relation to French locations. Faik’s stories pay homage to a cosmopolitan Istanbul as it was in the late years of the Ottoman Empire where people with a multitude of cultural and national backgrounds – Armenians, Jews, Greek Orthdox, Bulgarians, Kurds etc. – peacefully coexisted. He was thus in direct opposition to Atatürk’s idea of a unitary national identity (and was put on trial several times for publishing stories set on the Princes’ Islands that are mostly inhabited by ethnical minorities; one magazine editor asked him to turn the Greek protagonist of a story into a Turkish one.) His stories are about the urban life of ordinary people, fishermen, sailors, bar guests, steamboat passengers, road sweepers, postmen, orphans, tramps etc. – the kind of people that had not been featured in Turkish literature until then. The stories are based on personal observations and tend to neglect plot and exterior events for musings and digressions. Mundane occurences are interspersed with memories and fantasies, realistically depicted settings alternate with singled out impressions. Faik never intended to provide his readers with finished, satisfyingly resolved stories but with slices of day-to-day life as it was commonly experienced by his fellow men. By exploring the poetry of the ordinary, however, he transcended his own time and life circumstances and turned early 20th century Instanbul into one of the most characteristic settings of modern world literature, not quite unlike James Joyce’s Dublin.

A number of his stories address class distinctions and portray members of the privileged, owning class as exploitative and snobbish. In „The Ten Millionaires and Their Ten Girlfriends“ an outbreak of leprosy forces a community of blackmarketeers who made their fortunes during the war out of their luxurious country estate where they indulge in naughty partner swap activities. Only the servants are left who don’t fear leprosy and enjoy mocking the millionaires during occasional visits. A smug civil servant causes the moody hero of „The City by Morning and One of Their Own“ to imagine how life must be for those privileged enough to take their mood out on inferiors. The young, arrogant men and women in „People on the Beach“, who get involved into the dramatic rescue of a little boy, represent the intrusion of a presumptuous modernity into traditional life in Istanbul with all its human values. In „A Disease“, one of Faik’s most caustic social satires, a bright village boy is urged into a politcal career and ends up as a sad, ridiculed figure who never achieves his goal of working in Ankara. Faik’s own sympathy, on the other hand, was always with simple, modest and hardworking people who may seem plain and peripheral but impress with their human qualities. The first-person narrator of „Pinks and Tomato Juice“, one of Faik’s many thinly disguised self-portraits in his stories, who has little respect for people who obediently run in the race of modern civilized life, becomes the admirer of a hunchbacked, half-blind villager who in ardous work cultivates a small piece of land and at the end even builds a house for his family on it. The young Ali in „The Samowar“, who confidently and reliably begins each of his days as a factory worker with the same ritual, finds comfort after the sudden death of his mother in the meaning that his place of work has for ordinary people in his neighborhood. The narrator of „Mourning Ode“, perhaps again Faik as protagonist of one of his own stories, becomes friends with an old fisherman who regards life as a dirty business. To catch something as delicate and valuable as a lobster he is willing to do the unpleasant work of laying out stinking bait on a daily base.

Many of Faik’s tales depict the struggles and hardships of the poor. The narrator of “Some People” remembers the protest march of a group of underpaid henchmen who can’t afford hotel rooms and are thus forced to spend their nights in coffee houses. As the police bans this, their hopeless plan to plea to the governor makes him feel bad about looking forward to his own cozy bed. The young and strong, though somewhat simple-minded Ramo in “The Donkey Sent Into the Village”, who was born in a village close to the Iranian border, becomes aware of his own precarious situation as he learns with three years delay that a donkey he has sent into his family’s home village has served its purpose. Some of Faik’s stories set in foreign locations, too, focus on the plights of the lower classes, for example “The Italian Quarter in Grenoble”, a short lyrical travel impression of a constrained neighborhood in Faik’s alma mater location Grenoble where unemployed Italians gather.

Faik’s whole work is tinged with a note of melancholy, a deep sense for the futiliy of all human endeavors. Some of his most memorable characters reach sobering conclusions when looking back on their lives, for example the protagonist of “I Can’t Go to the City Anymore” who lives in well-ordered circumstances but has lost his vitality and his urge to participate in life and sees his sorry state reflected in the revolted reaction of a woman, or the aging waiter Ahmet in “The Waiter” who after the loss of his wife begins to realize that loving her should have been more important than constantly striving to follow his father’s – a businessman’s – footsteps and become a café owner himself. Almost all of Faik’s love stories are stories of failed or unfulfilled love, of secret longings that were never given a chance to be expressed or lived out. Women frequently appear in these tales as unattainable objects of desire in fantasies and memories, heavy with pain and regret. The wintry cold of a small town in “The Fear of Loving” reminds the narrator of a woman who only met him in fine weather and of the fears and sorrows he had to endure during her absences. The teacher Ali in “Davut’s Mother” returns to his home town after thirty years and begins to confuse the memories of an (apparently deceased) love of his youth with the presence of a landlady whose son he helps with his homework. “The Fountain” on a square in Istanbul becomes the melancholic symbol for the desires of the narrator who comes here to wait for the appearance of an unknown beauty that he secretly adores.

Faik was in no way a revolutionary. His tales are full of compassion and human warmth but they offer no solution to social problems, no call to action. They just depict life as it is. The only sources of hope in his stories are the small treasures of life, glimpses of the magic and the wondrous in the ordinary, moments of childlike sensual pleasure and a keen appreciation of all that is natural and beautiful. The narrator of “Papas Efendi” befriends a down-to-earth, secularly minded priest who explains his love for the Earth and its fertility during garden work. The old man, however, is little understood by his surroundings and dies tragically after he is accused of having seduced a young girl. Another paradigmatic hero of Faik’s stories is the shop owner in “A Superfluous Man” who, by society standards, leads a useless and asocial life and is completely satisfied with roaming the few streets of his neigborhood again and again, cultivating his beloved habits and observing the wondrous and loveable trifles of daily life. The bachelor in “The Winter in Front of His Door” feels a strange assurance as he experiences the approach of the cold season, dives into the crowd on the streets and observes the snowball fight of some children. The visitors of a coffee house in “The Fisherman’s Death” are puzzled by the last words of a fisherman who was found with a lobster net still in his hand and uttered strange associations about the clouds blown by the wind over the sea. Stories such as these suggest a world view that almost makes it seem as if the sole pupose of the world is to be perceived in small moments of epiphany by seemingly insignificant people with an open mind and heart.

The lasting impact of Faik’s work may be based on this sympathy for a simple, more elementary way of life that he saw threatened by the intrusions of a shallow and blatant modernity towards the end of the Ottoman era. His stories are just as deceptively plain and ordinary as the slices of life he wanted to capture, yet as a whole constitue a rich microcosm full of the poetry and hidden gems of ordinary life. In his own way his improvised, wayward style of writing, careless with regard to form and dramatic tension, driven only by his personal observances and associations, reached a level of mastership that made him one the the great short story writers of the 20th century.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Michael Iwoleit

English translations

Sleeping in the Forest,Stories and Poems, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse/NY 2015.

A Useless Man, Selected Stories, Archipelago Books, New York 2015.

German translations

Ein Punkt auf der Landkarte, Erzählungen, Dagyeli Verlag, Frankfurt/M 1991.

Geschichten aus Istanbul, Manesse Verlag, Zurich 2002.

Der Samowar, Erzählungen, dipa-Verlag, Frankfurt/M 1996.

Verschollene gesucht, Roman und drei Erzählungen, dipa-Verlag, Frankfurt/M 1993.