Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pamuk’s Distant Relations

“Quaint” was probably not what Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk was aiming for with the story “Distant Relations,” published in a recent edition of The New Yorker. (The story is available here.) But “quaint” was the sense I got after reading it.

It’s not a bad story. In fact, it kept my interest from start to finish (it’s seven pages long). I wanted to find out the nature and impact of a life-changing event mentioned in the opening sentence. The story is narrated by Kemal, a Westernized Turkish man, who remembers events that happened in Istanbul in the seventies. He’s about to get married to Sibel, a woman who “studied at the Sorbonne” (meaning that she studied in Paris). Kemal is the son of a wealthy and seemingly emotionally detached entrepreneur; Sibel is the daughter of a former ambassador. They have premarital sex, which makes them feel wild and liberal—while also making sure that, when she indeed “gave herself” to the narrator, wedding plans were on the way.

What seems quaint to me is the kind of society portrayed, and the narrative structure used. It reminded me a lot of Guy de Maupassant, in fact. There’s the language used to describe women, for instance, both in terms of their characterizations and of their effects on men (upon seeing the beautiful Füsun—with her “beautiful lips” and “beautiful arms”—, the narrator says this: “my ghost had left my body and was now, in some corner of Heaven, embracing Füsun and kissing her”). Or there’s the language of almost preordained social classes, which figures so largely (perhaps most notably here: “Sibel was the daughter of a retired ambassador who had long since sold off his pasha grandfather’s land and was now penniless; technically, this made her the daughter of a civil servant, and this status sometimes caused her to feel uneasy and insecure”). There are also several descriptions that seemed inevitably worn out (take this trite metaphor: “Fearful of the sexual beast now threatening to rear its head, I took my hand from her hair”). Along the same lines, was there really nothing better than the almost hollow references to Füsun’s “beautiful lips” and “beautiful arms”?

There’s a lot of that in “Distant Relations.” What makes it contemporary, and not entirely in the grip of Maupassant, is the fact that the story snaps off the ending toward which it was building up. In Maupassant, and authors of a similar persuasion, the narrative in “Distant Relations” would lead us all the way to the end, which would probably come as a tepid surprise after a trail of clues. (There are exceptions to this in Maupassant, of course.) In “Distant Relations” we only get the clues. That was clever enough. One of the first clues, and by far the most telling, comes up near the beginning: the narrator made a “clumsy gesture that, later, Füsum often mimicked.” And so we know that a causal encounter with a distant relative will probably blossom into an affair, which may even derail the narrator’s marriage. The scene is set for the affair toward the end, and we don’t know if the narrator will pull through with the marriage. Probably not: his dinners with his mother, who had encouraged him to marry his fiancée, turn sour as time passes, “her eyes filled half with sadness, half with reproach.” Such glimpses of the future dot the entire story.

Thematically, it’s interesting to see how Füsun’s body helps the narrator grow obsessed with his own body: “her body, with its long limbs, fine bones, and fragile shoulders, reminded me of my own. Had I been a girl, had I been twelve years younger, this was what my body would have been like.” He also refers passionately to her as “my sweet, inconsolable, grief-stricken, beautiful sister.” There are two ghosts in the story, too, once when the narrator says, “my ghost had left my body” (I had quoted this already), and another when “Füsun’s reflection appeared ghostlike in the smoky glass.” Is there a Pygmalionesque theme here? Maybe an urge to carry on through his own distant relations? These images would probably reward a closer look.

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