TE16 Turkish Delight
A full-issue focus on new Turkish fiction and poetry
an online quarterly journal with some of the best new literature from Europe
is a publication of
Trafika Europe ISSN 2472-2138
Labyrinth (novel excerpt)
Our Best Love Story (novel excerpt)
While Thomas is Falling (novel excerpt)
A Long-Awaited Arrival (short story)
Erkut Tokman Ten Poems
Buket Uzuner The Adventures of Misfit Defne Kaman: Earth (novel excerpt)
Letters to Shefkati (novel excerpt)
Let Me Out Here, Please (novel excerpt)
İlhan Sami Çomak Ten Poems
Needlefish (novel excerpt)
Medusa (short story)
Haydar Ergülen Ten Poems
Aslı Erdoğan The Stone Building and Other Places (novel excerpt) 276 Nazli Karabiyikoglu Jürek and Qan (novel excerpt) 286 Back Matter 302 About the Artist 304 About the Authors 306 Acknowledgments 314
TRAFIKA EUROPE 16 —TURKISH DELIGHT EDITOR’S WELCOME Considering how vast Turkey is, with eighty million people on the cusp of Europe and Asia, its thriving literary scenes at home and its numerous, notable expatriate communities, present-day Turkish literature is surprisingly little-known in English. This full-issue focus, Trafika Europe 16: TurkishDelight , brings you some of thesemany lights in fiction and poetry, both within Turkey and resident abroad. These writers young and old, seven women and eight men, represent an exciting spectrum of voices, both “at home” and farther afield, traditional and new. Several of the writers featured here have had extended run-ins with political violence and imprisonment, both in the past and presently. So the range here is great. Novelist Burhan Sönmez has achieved a concentrated wonder with his fourth novel, Labyrinth , just out in English translation fromOther Press. A studied, sensual narrative of a young jazz musician slowly regaining his bearings following sudden amnesia brought on by a spontaneous attempted suicide, the narrative doubles as a vehicle for observations on some deeper currents in contemporary Istanbul.
[Please check out Trafika Europe’s Conversation with Burhan Sönmez , discussing Labyrinth (25-minute audio)]
Mario Levi is one of Istanbul’s most cherished novelists. Two strands of literary inheritancecombine inhim– thatof the traditional Yiddish storyteller, togetherwith thehighmodernismof Joyce, VirginiaWoolf and Marcel Proust. The excerpt here is from Our Best Love Story , released last year in English translation by Dalkey Archive Press.
Birhan Keskin ’s Y’ol , writes Kevin Killian, “is a singular accomplishment, a book about desire and loss and craziness on a grand scale”. Her seventh book of poetry, it is out last year from Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, in exquisite translation by Murat Nejat- Nemet. Poet and novelist Altay Öktem is represented here by a generous advance excerpt in English from his latest Turkish novel, When Thomas is Falling . Nalan Barbarosoğlu gives us “A Long-Awaited Arrival”, a full short story about a youth peddling his stories and observations to travelers at a remote train station late at night. Poet and translator, actor and visual artist Erkut Tokman shares with us ten new poems. Named as one of the 75 Most Influential Women of the Republic of Turkey, author and environmental scientist BuketUzuner continues her Adventures of Misfit Defne Kaman with twochapters of wry family observations from the second installment in the series: Earth . One of the most prolific and well-established writers in Turkey, poet and novelist, screenwriter and director Selim Ileri is scarcely known in English. So we’re especially pleased to share this sample here from his epistolary novel, Letters to Shefkati . Following that are three short tales by Karin Karakaşlı from Let Me Out Here, Please , an experimental work incorporating both prose and poetry.
Turkish-Kurdish poet İlhan Sami Çomak writes beautiful, sensual, hypnotic poetry from his prison cell in Istanbul. He is 25 years through a likely 30-year prison sentence, having been convicted as a university student in the mid-1990s. His body of work deserves a wide audience in English. This is followed by an excerpt from Hakan Günday ’s Needlefish , an edgy, delightful coming of age tale of Turkish kids in Berlin. After that, Zeynep Çolakoğlu treats us to a bit of gothic horror with her short story, “Medusa.” Haydar Ergülen is one of Istanbul’s leading poetic lights, as a poet and editor, columnist, major festival organizer and university teacher of poetry. His poems function both as local fragments of emotional story and wise and polished windows, hinting at the tug of the all-in-all. Aslı Erdoğan is a prize-winning author and human-rights journalist, presently self-exiled in Germany. In this excerpt from The Stone Building , raw emotional conflict plays out in a poetic narrative of deep and furtive beauty. Then, this issue finishes with three sharp tales by feminist expatriate Turkish novelist Nazli Karabiyikoglu . Rounding it all out, our featured artist is the wonderful Turkish “street photographer” Hakan Bıyıklıoğlu , with images on our cover and throughout this issue at the start of each chapter.
Accompanying this issue, please also check out our Trafika Europe Corner featuring Deniz Durukan – with three of her poems, translated fromTurkish into English by Asli U. Bahadirli- Talbott – over at our partner’s European Literature Network site. Thanks are due especially to Erkut Tokman for his extensive guidance and help in organizing this issue, and notably also to translator Eylül Deniz Doğanay for several chapters here. Design and layout is by the apparently inexhaustible Clayton McKee.
Trafika Europe Some of the best new literature from Europe
Burhan Sönmez “It’s notasdifficultasdeciphering thecogs in the clock. Time in the cogs both moves forward and goes round and round in the sameplace. If I could figureout how that’s possible I might be able to figure out life too.”
Labyrinth (novel excerpt) by Burhan Sönmez Translated from Turkish by Ümit Hussein
Click here for a discussion with Burhan Sönmez about Labyrinth (25-minute audio)
If I Try Changing One Cog
19 The night has a smell of its own. Seaweed muddies the tarmac. Dried branches are coated with dust from building sites. The damp from the walls flows to adjacent neighborhoods. Floating gently, on a wind perfumed with incense, from cellars to lofts, from gardens to below bridges,the smell of the night enfolds the whole of Istanbul. Somewhere in the night lies Hayala’s smell. What time is it? The sound of sirens rings out in the distance. There are no other sounds outside.I refill my empty glass with wine. I takea sip. The redwine slidesdownmy throatwithanacrid aftertaste. Cheers Boratin, I say. I put the glass down on the table. The surface of the table is checked, like a chess board. Black and white squares. I didn’t buy this table, my landlady left it behind, I hope. I consider the other possibility. Just like the flaws in that song I composedaremine, this tablecould bemine too. I count the squares. Each time, I go back to the beginning and start again, as
Burhan Sönmez though I’m likely to get a different result. Hoping it will make me feel sleepy. On the black squares I fantasize about being asleep, but on the white squares I realize I’m sitting at the table. I bend down and smell its wood. The smell of varnish blends into the night. Perhaps that smell really exists, or perhaps I’m conjuring it up in my mind. I smell it again. Varnish. Trees. The tree’s damp roots wrenched out of the soil. Water flowing to the roots. For some reason the water reminds me of the white clock. I look at it ticking on the mantelpiece. I glanced at it while I was having dinner, it said seven o clock. When it passed eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve and came to one, I don’t know. If a thousand years passes like one night, on a wind perfumed with incense, should I sink into despair, or should I let myself go in the stillness of time? Someone who possesses one night can possess a thousand years. Or the reverse. Someone who can’t possess one night definitely can’t possess a thousand years. The Mary and Jesus beside the clock look as though they too have yielded to time. Their mouths are shut. Theirmarble faces areas still as a lake. I wind up theclock every night and place it beside them. They wait patiently. I can’t work out for what. I look at the picture of the ant on the clock in the hope that it will help me find the answer. There is a white ant on the clock face. It carries the clock on its back, with every tick it moves its spindly legs back and forth. It goes forward and at the same time counts on the spot. Day and night it keeps going, but it doesn’t get anywhere. I believe white is the best color for time. I pick up the clock and place it beside the wine glass. The night is in no hurry, neither am I. As I sip my wine I could open up the clock and tinker with it for a while. The thought is appealing. I go
Labyrinth into the kitchen and return with the tool box. I remove the small screwdriver from the top section. I turn the clock over. I pull out the winding key with my hand. I undo the screws on either side of the cover with the screwdriver. I line up the winding key and the first screws on the squares on the table top. So they will be easy to find when I’m reassembling the clock. I remove the alarm hand too and place it in the next square. When it’s the turn of the dial for adjusting the clock, I realize that it only goes forwards. When I turn it backwards it comes loose. I don’t bother trying to make sense of that. I place that dial too in a square. I slowly raise the back cover. I’m seeing the inside of a clock for the first time in my life. I won’t have seen it in my previous life. I don’t know the names of the cogs, coils and screws that are coming to life in the crystal light of the chandelier. The cogs spin at different speeds, in different directions. I can’t see the ant. It has fled inside the clock, to get away from the sudden flood of light. It has gone right to the bottom, to the dark side of time. It hadn’t occurred to me that a clock the size of my palm could have so many cogs. Cogs with serrated edges that tessellate with other cogs have created a covered sky, and they rotate. Or rather, the world and the sky rotate around them. The fate of everything depends on them. The sound of the clock, that can barely be heard from a distance, now rings out as loud and clear as a grinding stone. If I fell asleep here, if I rested my head on the table and drifted off, it wouldn’t be long before the sound woke me up. Is it the collective sound of all the cogs, or is it the work of a single cog? I examine a medium sized cog, wondering if that’s where the sound is coming from. I glance at the large cog at the bottom. I descend layer by layer, trying to
Burhan Sönmez find the source of the sound. I know that when I remove one of those cogs the clock will stop and the sound will cease. Which cog is it? I sip my wine and take a deep breath. On top of the cogs, a rectangular piece of metal with screws on all four corners holds all the pieces together. I undo all four screws. I remove the rectangular piece of metal. I place the screws and the piece of metal on one of the black squares on the table. I must be a bit of a handyman. My fingers are skillful with the screwdriver. Perhaps I repair my own guitars too, doing everything from changing the guitar magnets to adjusting the neck. It’s not as difficult as deciphering the cogs in the clock. Time in the cogs both moves forward and goes round and round in the same place. If I could figure out how that’s possible I might be able to figure out life too. Why does the pain of a crucifixion from two thousand years ago continue to this day? Why does the throbbing in my rib come from deep down, as though it’s the continuation of an old pain? I think of Hayala’s words: There’s a difference between the past and history. While everyone is trying to give you a past, what they’re actually giving you is a history. In the former everything is alive, in the latter it’s dead. Yes but how can I tell the two apart? If I asked my doctor she would prescribe new medicines. If I asked Bek he would look at me with concern. If I asked Hayala she would kiss me. If I asked my sister she would say, I miss you. I miss her too, but I don’t know what it is that I miss. I feel sleepy. It’s as though someone is dimming the lights. Dark water pours into the empty space in my mind. I rest my head on the table. I close my eyes. Springs, coils, screws. One of the cogs isn’t turning properly. I don’t know which. If I try changing one cog, they’ll all stop.
20 You and Suzan used to come to this café, says Bek. After you split up you never set foot here again. Or if you did, I don’t know anything about it. The inside is done up like a house, they’ve made the outside look like a garden. You used to spend a lot of time here. You would read and she would draw. I look around me as I listen to Bek. Despite the age of its buildings, the walls covered with ivy and drawings give the café, that is spread over two buildings facing each other, an air of liveliness. The narrow, pedestrian street really does resemble someone’s back garden. The small pots of violets, geraniums and orchids on the tables are aburst with color. Young people, slumped in low chairs, are chatting lethargically, or reading. Suzan’s coming tomorrow, says Bek, this is where you’re going to meet. It would have been better if you’d waited till tomorrow and discovered this street with her. I can’t understand why you insisted on coming today. I haven’t got any memories to share with you about this place, but Suzan has. Are you afraid of meeting her? Without turning to face Bek, my eyes fixed on the drawings on the walls, I say, yes. If you ask me that question again I’ll answer, no. I don’t just feel one thing, I feel several things all at the same time. I’m both curious and indifferent about my past. I want to come here tomorrow and I don’t. I thought I’d come today, to confirm what I want, to test myself here too. Otherwise I can’t differentiate between right and wrong. I loved a girl and thenwe split up. What if I did something terrible to her, what if I find that out tomorrow? I’m afraid of that, but I’m also afraid of not discovering anything tomorrow,
Burhan Sönmez of returning home with the same mind, of not knowing myself. So far all my tests have been a waste of time. Guitars and songs haven’t brought my memory back. Doctors, grocers, pigeons. Address books, dead friends, black haired women. None of them has helped me remember the past. My suicide doesn’t make any sense. Why did I want to die? Maybe I was one of those people who are secretly unhappy. I was unhappy because I nurtured the wrong dreams. I rack my brains day and night trying to work out what those dreams might have been, but I can’t. And then I feel happy. I say I’m free of wrong dreams. Bek now you’re going to get up and leave me, to go to the rehearsal for the weekend’s concert. Before you go I want you to know this. I’m not coming here tomorrow. I’m not going to meet my ex-girlfriend. The moment I sat here I became certain of the thought that’s been going round and round my head for days. Don’t say anything, I think every one of your words contains a secret. I get confused. I struggle day and night to uncover the secret in your words, but always end up in a dark tunnel. I can’t do it like this Bek, find me another way. You tried to take me to the past, but it didn’t do any good, this time try taking me away from it. Take me somewhere where the past can’t reach. You’re the only one who can do it. Do you know something Bek, contrary to what you think, I don’t long for the past. I don’t feel nostalgic about it. I have a pretty good idea of how people live their lives. In the beginning, in their youth, people dream about the future and build utopias. They are hopeful. The future is long and everything is possible there. But towards the end of a lifetime, possibilities are tried out and used up. There’s no place left for utopia. People distract themselves with what they have, in
Labyrinth other words, with an ample past. And then nostalgia takes over from utopia. I don’t have those things. I have neither utopia nor nostalgia. Does that mean I can be considered dead, or am I some kind of solitary living species? Boratin…Boratin… I turn at the sound of Bek’s voice. Are you all right, he says, you drifted off. It’s only then that I realize I was talking to myself. I’m fine, I say, I was engrossed in those lovely drawings on the wall. The more I look at them the further away they seem. It’s turned cloudy, says Bek, it’s got dark early, that’s why the drawings give you that impression. Are those rain clouds, I ask. I think so, he says, this time it’s really going to rain. It’s the first time I’ve seen clouds so close up, I say. If I go up to the rooftop I’ll be able to touch them. If it rains I don’t know what I have to do, should I stay here, or should I go inside? When it rains wait for a bit, he says, get a feel for what it is and then go inside. Otherwise you’ll get drenched. Watching the rain from inside, from the window, is nice too. Do you know something Boratin, you wrote a great song about rain. It can be the opening number at the concert this weekend, we can sing your song. Bek looks at my face and waits for my reaction. There’s no point in looking at me, I say, I don’t remember the song. I’m sure it’s a song with minor defects hidden inside it. Why do you say that Boratin, it would never occur to anyone to pick holes in your songs. If you listened to it now you’d see how mistaken you are. Shall I sing it to you? No, don’t, I say, I’ll find bits where the lyrics don’t fit the music and I’ll get into a mood. Bek doesn’t understand why I said that. He doesn’t insist. I’d better go, he says, or I’ll be late for the
Burhan Sönmez rehearsal. He stands up. Then he orders a rice pudding from the waiter, who comes up just at that moment. You used to like the rice pudding here, he says, just taste it. He puts his hand on my shoulder. Let’s talk tomorrow, he says, tomorrow everything will be all right. I’m going to tell you something, I say. Go ahead, he says. I’m going to go and see my sister, in Nehirce. When are you going, he says. As soon as possible, I say. Bek remains standing for a few seconds, then sits back down again. How soon is as soon as possible, he asks. He imagines what’s going through my head. He knows me better than I know myself. Bek, I say, I’m content with what I have left from my old life. You, one or two others, and the guitars that I haven’t touched yet. I don’t feel like there’s anything missing. My ex-girlfriend isn’t something that’s lacking in my life. The only person from my past I want to reach out to is my sister. She’s been waiting for me for weeks, years maybe. Every time, I tell her I’ll go and see her soon. What am I waiting for? You tell me, what am I waiting for? Go whenever you like, says Bek, in a soothing tone. You have to start taking your life into your own hands somewhere. But do it soon, otherwise you might change your mind. Okay, I say, you go now, you’ll be late for the rehearsal. I’ll stay a bit longer, we can chat, he says. No, I object, I can’t have you keeping the others waiting because of me. All right, he says, but keep your phone switched on. I will, I say. Otherwise I’ll worry, he says. He smiles, his eyes half closed. He stands up again. He smoothes back his hair. He looks around him. He picks up his bag and goes. I watch Bek walking, I watch his head bowed with concern and I watch him disappear at the end of the street. I drain my cup of coffee. I stub my cigarette out
Labyrinth in the ashtray. I don’t touch the rice pudding the waiter brings. I pay the bill and leave. I stridequickly through thestreets. At eachcorner, beforecrossing to the other side, I gaze up at the sky. Fifteen minutes later I arrive home. I pack my rucksack. A few changes of clothing, a couple of records, that’s all. The records are for my nephew. I now switch off the lights that I always leave on. I run down the stairs. I put the rucksack down on the edge of the pavement. I raise my hand to hail a cab. Our grocer is nowhere to be seen. He must have a customer. Before long a taxi draws up. I say I’m going to Haydarpaşa Train Station. Right away young man, says the driver. He has grey hair and thick glasses. He’s wearing a suit and tie. He’s very likely a retired civil servant. As he drives into the heavy traffic he says, this is because of the gas tanker. What gas tanker, I say. There’s been an accident in the Bosphorus with a gas tanker, all the ferries have been suspended, they’ve been talking about it on the radio allafternoon. Now everyone’s trying to cross over to the other side by car. I hope you’re not in ahurry. I still have some time, I say, it’s not evening yet. In the back seat, by the window, I lookup. I listen to what they’re saying on the radio. They’re talking about soccer matches. They switch from praise to criticism of the teams, the coaches, the players. I remember every name they mention. That side of my memory is still fresh. I only confuse the time of one player. I assumed he was still alive, but it turns out he’s been dead for many years. After that there’s a music program. One arabesque song plays after another. Our car inches its way to the Bosphorus Bridge, amid the deafening
horns of irate drivers. The evening’s darkness cloaks the horizon. The lights on the other side begin to come on at the same time as the lights on the bridge. The traffic advances at a snail’s pace. And then the radio announces that the accident involving the petrol tanker is under control and that the ferries are up and running again. Time for the sea to come back to life. If I could pluck up the courage to look down I’d see the ships sailing on the Bosphorus. I canmakeout the lights of the boats to-ing and fro-ing like fireflies between Beşiktaş and Üsküdar. If I could distract myself with the ships and the boats’ lights I’d be able to stop thinking about the night of my suicide. No matter how hard I try, I don’t succeed. It’s all reenacted before my eyes, as though I’m watching a film. On the last night of my previous life too I was slumped in the back seat of a taxi, just like now. I was alone. I wanted to sleep. Maybe I was dreaming. When was it, a month ago, two months ago, or two thousand years ago? Eventually I woke up. I saw that the cars were stuck in a traffic jam. My taxi driver was standing outside, talking on the telephone. Other drivers had got out too, and were looking at the accident further ahead. I realized I was in the middle of the Bosphorus Bridge. Instead of the traffic, I thought about the sea. I opened the door of the taxi and went to the edge of the bridge. I gazed at the sky and the lights on the other side. Mustering up all my courage, I climbed onto the metal railings. I held out my arms. I took deep breaths. I waited for the wind that would carry me off. It was night. Perhaps that was why I didn’t realize just how deep the sea was. The darkness made me forget about depth. Istanbul was buzzing. The sounds coming from the shores and the slopes all became a single buzz. Burhan Sönmez
In the middle of Istanbul, in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the night, between two continents, in the middle of the world and in the middle of life I was as light as a feather. I couldn’t hear the shouts of the people around me. I wanted to go back to sleep. I closed my eyes and released myself into the void. Like a bird. That’s what the taxi driver said. And as he described it he moved his outstretched arms up and down like wings. Labyrinth
Mario Levi “Because my entire consciousness then seems to be gripped by heat, a bizarrekindof heat. Ipromptlylight up a cigarette, and despite feeling somewhat wearied and somewhat embarrassed, I say: at least we’re in an antechamber of love with no one able to see us; we belong to one another.”
Our Best Love Story (novel excerpt) by Mario Levi Translated from Turkish by Zeynep Beler 10 The Arab’s Coffeehouse, Shores, Train Whistles
The Arab’s Coffeehouse is overrun this morning with those who fail to write what they wish, who inhabit a dream. It’s a sentence that appears evocative, seems to express hurt and exasperation; a sentence that’s bound to be associated with the magic of certain words and reminiscent of those old illusion-laden photographs. We could also call it, perhaps, a beginning that engenders hope in the way of conveying and sharing a game that has long been reckoned with or an attempt at self-examination. A little hopeful attempt, yes.Yetdespiteall thediscourse, imagery, and insufficiently expressed parentheses I can’t help but carry within me, I honestly still don’t understand my impulse to call this coffeehouse, which I may have passed by before in another lifetime of loneliness infused with completely different words, the Arab’s Coffeehouse, just as I don’t understand my effort to live by discounting certain truths and longing, within this text, for another story. Is it that I’m attempting to pursue once more a presentation of previous lives along with the evocations such names are sure to bring? Maybe. As a matter of fact, considering the stately trees surrounding it, this place could just as easily be called the Fig’s Shade, or that of the chestnut, or walnut. As for the real name of the coffeehouse, it must be a lot uglier than any number of my guesses. Then one is faced with the magical bittersweet joy that stems fromnot knowing certain things, 27
Mario Levi or at times refusing to know. We could say that it’s a small act of rebellion, ora bid todelayaquitepossibledefeat. If youonly knew, for instance, howmarvelous and soothing it is to be unable to tell which lives you’re sharing, with whom, and in what manuscript, fancy, or sentence; to consider that I may have lost something in a story, and to have created every sorrowand joy inmydream in this attempt at a new appeal. This is perhaps the apex of this bizarre adventure that revolves around you; the unavoidable activation of a self-defensemechanismonecould becomeattached to ad finem , the need to flee, as much as possible, from an obligation that has long beendefined. Yet I’mno longer as ashamed of these exercises in self-deception as I used to be, for I have many ways to detect the things that await me at some point down the road. Perhaps the many years and my extensive and strenuous trips among manuscriptswerenecessary tofindoutwhatminutiae thosewho’d achieved certain lives avoided bearing. For one to learn to bear one’s own selfhood, shortcomings, and contrarieties, however, hazarding such expulsions was already obligatory. Making do with self-answering questions is much easier and bearable in that regard. Howmany of us are given so many reasons to ask whether these delusions befell us while in stolen and deceptive states of inebriation, how many of us say it, how many of us refuse their enchantment?More importantly, contrary to initial assumptions, did these minute and thrilling games not bind us more firmly to life? Can I not assess my willingness to bury within me the nuance I unexpectedly discovered tonight in this coffeehouse, my longing to forget the role I’ve assumed nowadays, even if for a while, and abscond to one of those old, lost fancies, my ability
Our Best Love Story to remember that peerless sea scent once more despite the vague toot of a train whistle, as my struggle to love this city that drifts farther away fromme with each passing day, with its bridges built every day but in turn also torn down? Can a similar struggle not be found within a person who stays indifferent to my existence and my appeals? It’s like us, after all, to be melancholy, to turn autumnal, to revel in bus trips in the middle of the night, in a motel somewhere between two forsaken towns, in the wrenching pain and poetry of the tawdry meals in the tawdry restaurant of that motel; it all becomes those people who, like us, are forced to remain in the beginning, talking to their shadows, our best love story unable to belong anywhere in spite of all their wishes. The Arab’s Coffeehouse is very becoming on this cool summer morning, yes. I know very well now which stops the train that’s now in the stationwill make next, the games it will host, and with which actors. Idealtepe, Süreyya Beach, Pendik. The people who were once alien to this city, whose stories I shared in their myriad forms, have now departed to locations far away. Irreconcilably different departures in irreconcilably different countries and vernaculars await them now, as well as irreconcilably different reunions. Pendik, Süreyya Beach, Idealtepe. The scent of the sea and its evocations. Never mind, never mind, push past it, push past it, as an old friend would have said. New inquests will bring us nowhere, and another attempt at trying to get past the hopelessness is tantamount to rowing upstream, now. After all, most if not all those who experienced those spaces know very well what we lost even in the very recent past. Considering it all from this perspective, it may be for the best to leave everyone
Mario Levi alone with his own stories and evocations. I suppose it must be something not unlike awaiting a familiar sound, some fecundity, or remorse that may give way to joy, to rise from an ostensibly unresponsive street. Let’s see to what familiar beach or crack in the door this longing will bring us. I considered once more, for example, those who’ll one day be able to hear us and these things we’ve endured in the way we want to be heard. The possibilities were oftentimes uplifting and just as often anxiety-inducing. At the end of the day, in such efforts of conferring, no risk is too great to turn away from. It’s an old, old tale, in other words, a journey that inoureyesalluringly, almost irresistiblypaints thisadventure. The allure of heading into danger, yes. I hope that one day, after a long time has passed, after the numerous layers of this story have been lived out and, most importantly, rewritten by others, I’ll be able to talk to you of remaining grievances. For now, though, only dreams, designs, and little anticipations. Hopes that bind us to one another, to stations thatwemay happen upon at inopportune times and in lost motels. It’s then that I say to myself, now is the time to wait somewhere, small suitcase in hand, between a few lines, or in some sentence that may have gone ignored. Many reasons for travel and small joys have accumulated inside you. You recall the poetry of certain sounds and wish you could relive what you’ve lost. You have been told, also, that you’re living in memories, in the dream of a lover that never changes. Then you think of defeat and the lovemaking left inside the dreams, and you strive to forget yourself once more, to look the other way.
Our Best Love Story
11 The Earthquake Inside
As it was, must he now undertake a new complicity, despite all his resentments, with an author who seemed capable of dreaming up new stories based on certain bodies of text or dubious cues, making all the arrangements necessary for such preparations, consciously ignoring the parts he didn’t see fit to include and striving to tell any lie necessary to ensure the persuasiveness of events, or set out on another road afresh, toward another person, another hell or author? A ripe search for an unexpected story, untested possibilities, he thought elatedly, remembering, all of a sudden, the same old stories, the images, and the regrets. Yet he’ d attempted this adventure, these emotions and sentiments before. That was partly the reason for the blizzard of anxiety and unavoidable and inevitable questions that overtook him. Could one be sure, for instance, where a relationship, a love adventure, and, increasingly, a story would begin and end? Could a lover not keep going, in spite of all the years and changing seasons and yearnings alike, within another, silently if need be? Most importantly, would these departures and obligatory reunions ever be spent, our journey to our brokenness or to our choices ever end?
12 The Chinese Restaurant
Sonowonceagain I findmyself at thesamedeadendorawakening. A familiar gloom descends upon me and I think of the songs, the intoxications that are identical to escape, the summer clothes that are kept waiting in mourning, endless mourning, forgotten Four O’Clocks wilting somewhere. I also dream of the icy scent of aniseed, it half-scares and half-revolts me. Perhaps that’s why I think that every person dies a different way in each relationship, is spent in a different way. Something shakes me to the core, something I still can’t seem to name collapses once more in our tiny, quiet lives woven out of isolation. I want to tell myself once more, no matter how hard it is, that you won’t be returning to this manuscript, this story that gives no clues as to when it will be written. Consequently I’m reborn into a certain sorrow, dreaming of the scent of September, thinking that possibilities are endless and will surely give us fresh games to exist within, but still apprehensive about being confronted with my questions and my lack of answers. Where was the original error, for instance, the actual error that brought me, us, here? In my likening you, always, to poetry, or sanctuary, or desolation? Or the fact that I had lost my way, once again, in this lengthy text, or my excessive pushing of boundaries or my becoming besotted, once again, with being a hero, a self-professed charmer? Was there nothing wrong with this picture, and if not, should it all be seen as the natural, unavoidable result of a passion condemned to remain unfulfilled? There was a time when the effort to answer this last 32
Our Best Love Story
question could have taken me to another dead end, forced me to hazard one of those little storms once more, whether I wished to or not. But it’s too late for that now. To be more accurate, certain experiences assure me that similar lines of questioning won’t take me anywhere. How, then, can I explain this effort, the hope that has sprung to life within me just because? Why do I think of these words, why undertake directing this hopeless tirade at you? In hopes of getting over or turning a blind eye to certain conundrums to discover a new smile for myself or a completely new, unexpected crowd? To be able to picture once more, on a rainy night, that crack in the door? To stand in front of that door, on that threshold, and hope for sudden rebirth? None of these things, to be completely honest. After all, I made up my mind many years ago that maintaining futile longings is pointless. Yet still ultimately it feels as though there are things I haven’t been able to tell you in spite of all the paroxysms, preparations, and exercises in loneliness, as though I were forever appearing before you lacking, in spite of all the lies I know. And it isn’t as if I’m unaware of the importance of shortcomings in love, in all human relationships. All said and done, however, onecan’t readilyaccept, after all of one’s lifetimes, one’s constant tardiness, especially that which manifests in a relationship, one’s timidity when cracking open a door, or empty wineglasses on a lonely evening, or believe one keeps on carrying a constantly repeating cycle of regrets from one relationship to the next. The only things left behind are the fallacies. At that point I try to derive some small joy from the burden of our relationship, causing it to remain a beginning, a possibility, an unfulfilled longing. For we both know extremely
Mario Levi well how even prolonged, domestic relationships wear out eventually, despite the best intentions, and lose their initial luster. So it seems our attachment is destined for brilliance because it will never give way to that kind of isolation or unraveling. We’ll never find the opportunity to binge on one another, for instance; I’ll never become well acquainted enough with your body, with your quotidian and most natural habits to feel the urge at some point to leave you for the sake of an ambiguous, likely unwise longing. You’ll always remain for me a probability, a choice tantamount to long unexpected journeys. I will always remember you as you are in these sentences, even after the passing of many years, sentences, and joys. Perhaps this is the crack in the door I’ve mentioned before. On this earth where almost every single gesture is contrived in a silent game, where desperation is constantly masked by new discoveries of words and fashions, all in service of maintaining a system, of which the meaning has never really been determined, and humanity’s great bliss and principles, the near-complete loss of which is accepted by only a scant few, is it not incomparably elating to be able to revel in suchdetail, with all the sentiments, commentary, and evocations, despite the horrendous pain of self-reflection? Are the pain and defeat’s detritus not preferable to having never experienced the turmoil and anxiety of preparing for a new lover? You make no reply to these questions, and I know you might never be able to, but your silence won’t stop me from multiplying alongside you within other stories. Whatever experiences and yearnings may come to pass, a passion is always one’s unbroken progress toward oneself and one’s dream, no matter the circumstances,
Our Best Love Story it’s impossible not to carry something from one relationship to the next. After that point, you may be able to bring once more to your life’s agenda the questions you had been putting off for so long. Did we go on an adventure in between the lines, for instance, accompanied by several glasses of wine, or seek refuge between a pair of parentheses, clandestinely, and however briefly? Did that waiter with excellent manners at the Chinese restaurant recognize us both, and would he recognize us again, on one of the nights we’d go there, as the entirely unconnected protagonists of entirely different stories? In time, could we come to love thematchless alliance of red and black? Orwas everything in this game synonymous with a lie, as it was often wont to be— did you just stick your head in the door, leaving me to choose living with that dream and resentment? Had we been able to tell each other that everything, in time, would turn into a sum of symbols, a shared isolation, increasingly a delusion? Would you and I one day be able to talk about the secret of those shards of glass? For this game to seem like it was played by the same rules as the others, prolonging itself with renewed questions, did that explain enough?
13 A Summer’s Evening in Sintra
Questions, questions, questions. Perhaps one could never hope to escape the obligation to experience new words, seasons, or persons in the name of a compulsively gripping, belated story. As
Mario Levi a narrator, he once more nervously considered his role in such a dream; the covert agreements he’dmade with certain protagonists, the unfinished, unrealizeddesigns, and the lies that hadnever taken anyone anywhere in the history of this long body of text. He made coffee on the stove and checked that he had enough cognac and tobacco, wishing inwardly that he could tell someone about the magic of withdrawing into the night, of seeking sanctuary there after a barrage of songs. These were actually among the details and themes his author also frequently returned to and for some reason enjoyed repeating. Such nights contained unspent sentences and words that invited certain memories and sorrows; such nights meant a journey, belated and oft-unrealized, to a person, a story, or a far, extremely faraway country. (He was no stranger to such sentiments, of course, or to similar turns of phrase, considering the adventures he’ d previously experienced or had to endure. He was a prisoner to certain obsessions, he was aware his author had introduced him as such, a prisoner to certain obsessions. The trouble here stemmed from the fact that as with almost all matters and sentiments, there was a hyperawareness concerning certain truths. As it was, however, hopelessness tended to knock on our doors at unexpected times in unexpected forms. One could never know their location on the path to transformation and self- reflection, and could never hope to know. The pain of wisdom, however, had been mentioned many, many centuries ago.) That’s part of the reason why I must devise a completely different history and if necessary an appearance, some sort of mask, he thought to himself, so I can enjoy certain longings and bittersweet joys, and that was partly why he didn’t condemn this groundwork, was
Our Best Love Story not disconcerted by this sentiment, the ancient longing in that phrase. Yet against all hope, in the room where he’ d come to live in different texts in the name of utterly disparate resentments, he found his reflection in the mirror anxiety-inducing and even downright frightening. He would have liked to speak of his age, of his elderliness, but was not able. Then he tried to smile once again, remembering that for years he’ d chased the same theme and the same poem and had sought sanctuary in the same smiles or treacherous joys; imagining himself once more on a departure, some small beginning, a story left half-finished. A melancholy summer’s evening, for instance, was transpiring in Sintra just now, and he was the passionate protagonist of an unpredictable path in a faraway land. In the story he’ d pictured possibly having dinner in this tiny city, on an evening like this, with themysterious woman he hadonceglimpsedontheSalamanca–Lisbontrain,whose imagehe’ d kept to himself in spite of all the years that had passed since. The calmfragranceof anall-too-familiar lonelinessandanunparalleled plant life seemed to abruptly descend upon his surroundings. The dreamlike person before him was in fact his own reflection, or illusion, or even his defeat. It was a game of minutiae: a game that could be played and interpreted in different ways depending on the varying flow of time. Now, for example, they spoke to one another of distant climates, the moods and resentments that had engendered them and that they’ d soon return to, merging into one another in an aged, full-bodied intoxication, rediscovering wine and music as though they had never parted ways, dreaming of losing themselves anew in an instant of eternity. Wine and music indeed. That may have been the evening that he was introduced to
Mario Levi the incomparable despondency of Fado. “Amalia Rodrigues,” said the waiter, leaning close, “Amalia Rodrigues; from this moment on you shall never forget this voice.” Amalia Rodrigues was with him now, years after the melancholy summer’s evening during which that story had transpired. With him now in the form of a sentence, in his room, his loneliness, his pain, and all his longings for former lovers; as a friend that had always kept him company, as a fancy that some might find preposterous, a myth, or even just a possibility. He would return to Lisbon that evening still in thrall to this unexpected discovery, search for the Lisbon of his dreams again in this city whose language he’ d found impenetrable, and haul his defeats, self-deceptions, the regret of dinners never held, and the rules of the game once more to a decrepit and shoddy hotel room. He would then nurture the remorse of having come here on this summer’s evening on his own, thinking of the loners who simply could not unite, the desperate ones who doggedly pursued unattainable dreams. On several ensuing evenings after that, he had sat in the same spot in a coffeehouse whose name he couldn’t quite recall nowadays. He’ d met a fantastically old waiter then; in the face of the disparate realms of language where they had attained their full personalities, they had conversed of even the most abstract subjects they could dream up or longed to discuss. In the later hours of the night they had a few drinks together and talked of memory-laden bed-and-boards, incompatible sexuality and the pain it often brings, the obstructions in the way of sharing it, the books unfinished, a matter not helped by being imprisoned in a city. Everything rang of Fado at the time: melancholy, without narrative, without hope of return. Then, wandering through the
Our Best Love Story timeworn streets of Lisbon, he’ d felt the pangs of an otherworldly story making itself felt inside him. The story of a waiter dying an extremely prolonged death between a shoddy bed-and-board and a coffeehouse, he said to himself. He was absolutely sure that someday he’ d tell his author about this reverie.
14 Your Face, Left to Me
Because my entire consciousness then seems to be gripped by heat, a bizarre kind of heat. I promptly light up a cigarette, and despite feeling somewhat wearied and somewhat embarrassed, I say: at least we’re in an antechamber of love with no one able to see us; we belong to one another. Then I sense that you can’t hear me, cannot even see me. I shake myself out of inertia. I think of your face left to me, your body I couldn’t indulge in, your door I could not knock on. For every detail I’m forced to live out, am practically obliged to live out, lives on in you, proliferates in you, breathes with you. Out of the blue I think of a placid, supremely quiet island shore, its sea urchins, mussels you can fry in a tin, the rum taverns I never had the chance to really enjoy, the fatigued lurchingof adarklywell-dressedandancientwomandownawide, noisy avenue, the reek of mackerel, Jewish homes preparing for Passover, the story of leek dumplings, the night buses along the Bosphorus, the days dawning with the horns of ferries, Efrahim and Selami, Agia Paraskevi Day, the sounds of the lute, the piano, and the qanun, September in a waterfront mansion on the
Mario Levi BosphorusandSuadprolongedwithinme, thefoulnessandbeauty of the streets of Şişli, the extraordinary singularity of the terrain that is Istanbul; I recall paradoxes and deferrals. It’s then that an ancient and not at all unfamiliar question arises in my mind: was it you I had loved, or the shadow of a possibility that had trailed me for years? In such a place all I could do was count minutes, only the minutes. You then appeared before me in a vestibule, in the form of a vanishing dream. I found myself wandering in the hallways of a hotel soaked in the smells of alcohol, avoidance, and loneliness, its history written in the dead night of silence. Once again I was reticent about encountering mirrors, ashamed once more of being always a prisoner to words and only words. What hallway is this, I asked myself, what room were we in just now? My gaze fixed once more on one of the mirrors. I expected that despite my inner storms I’d never receive a response from my reflection, and I won’t lie, I was rather frightened of it. It was as though I was bringing myself news of a looming threat, my impending death inside a lover. I was at a point in time difficult to determine. Had I just now emerged from this love adventure, or many, many years ago? What reflection of evasion, muteness, or nighttime did I see beforeme now? Stories and shattered mirrors. I’ve never forgotten this trope and ought never to, I said to myself then, and you seemed to consider my words to be a sort of secret pact. You waited for me at the end of the hallway in one of the dresses I had thought of buying for you, that I had pictured you wearing. My very essence was overtaken by a shudder as you said, “Christian Lacroix,” appearing to remember this small detail, and continued, “Thank you so much for everything. But if you had
Our Best Love Story only been able to push aside those words and stories and come to me.” Your words seemed to contain some sort of enchantment, an enchantment that’s like suddenly finding yourself lost on a strange street, the abrupt discovery of a courtyard, which you’re then somehow unable to exit. Once more you were at a remove open to brand-new shadows, memories, and questions. In turn I asked how we were to change this time difference between us, and how had you suddenly entered this story at a time I least expected? “All is not as it seems, only as it wishes to be seen,” you replied, as though you had foreseen this question that I simply couldn’t bring myself to ask, and added, “Let’s go, let’s go. Where I’m taking you, you’ll set out for completely different words and songs. An incense burns now in my room, one you’ll recall from an old, a very old story.” In that heated moment, suspended for eternity, I once again contemplated, for some reason, meeting with you in a secluded hotel in a town whose name I’d never be able to know or discover. Then we made love on silky sheets on an enormous bed. I glimpsed your back and haunches, your nakedness reflected off of the mirrors around us, as the strange smell of the incense burned in my nostrils. I ran my lips and tongueoveryour bodyandyou in turnpulledmy swellingmember between your legs, saying, “You must flow into me, melt inside me.” Now, I said, we disappear inside our dream, permeate one another. The smell of incense burned my nostrils and it felt as though this was my first journey to passion, to a lover.
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