Why You Should Read: A Useless Man, Sait Faik

By Lydia Beardmore 


“If works of literature do not carry people into a new, happy, different, good and beautiful world then what are they good for?” - Sait Faik Abasiyanik



Like most who drag themselves away from life in Istanbul, I never quite got over the separation. Homesick and looking for company somewhere in North London, I read everything, watched everything and inhaled deeply walking past kebab shops. These were my attempts to transport myself to the world described by Faik above, yet nothing matched the intensity of my sadness hüzün than reading A Useless Man

I had known about Sait Faik Abasiyanik since moving to Turkey, but on learning that a book of his short stories had been translated to English by Alexander Dawe and Maureen Freely (who has translated Orhan Pamuk and Sabahattin Ali), I instantly bought a copy. The first story I read was At The Beyazit Fountain, as I finished I snapped the book shut unable to handle it. I was too familiar with the conversation, with the melancholy and haunting simplicity. Some time later I came back to the collection, it was now spring and I was ready to fall in love again. In each story I could feel the seasons, the moonlight, the sea, the wedding dances. There was a subtle yet powerful way the author put agency into the inanimate, the simple meaning behind waves and the smell of milk, each story is not an epic adventure, yet the meaning is summarised in the importance of objects, of moments, in the quiet lives of fishermen, priests, islands; the smell of lavender, salepraki, beer. His stories are surreal and real, romantic and mundane, they follow private thoughts inside public places, the visible yet invisible men who make up the landscape of Istanbul's coffee houses and nocturnal wildlife, he is a true islander, isolated, marginal and surrounded by what made him, nature, sadness and romance. The work reflects this, the lives of ordinary people and their smallest most intimate moments.

To Turks, Sait Faik is the ultimate short story writer, long compared to Chekov, he brought the ‘real people’ to life in his stories. I am not a fan of comparing any writer to their ‘better known in the west’ counterpart, yet I can understand the want to highlight a writer portraying the narrative of the working classes. His work does not push this however, it is not a pretentious showdown of a forgotten people, there are no rambling passages on wrinkles nor is it a fetishisation of the poor, it is simply, what he saw. As Suha Oguzertem writes in an introduction to prior collection Sleeping in the Forest’, "As an anti-bourgeois writer and fierce democrat, Sait Faik has always sided with the underdog"" and that no characters remain "" 'common' or 'ordinary' once they enter Sait Faik's stories; his piercing gaze and thoughtful vision transform them lovingly into unique beings." [1]

If we look into Sait’s life we can see how he lived reflected on almost every page of his collected works. Expelled from school for leaving a pin on a teacher’s chair, Sait lived in France for three years, an experience that undoubtedly influenced him. He lived much of his life in mansion on Burgazada, (now the Sait Faik museum), drinking raki till dawn in Beyoglu, and much like in his stories, talking to people. Apparently few islanders knew he was a writer until after his death, and many tales follow him, sending his dog to buy groceries, having the foulest mouth in Istanbul and falling helplessly in love with fellow writer Leyla Erbil.

Although his works are regarded as timeless they represent a time in 30s Turkey, the post Ottoman, newly secular era in which so many people began to live new lives, and yet this time is told through its people, through the vignettes he creates an Istanbul and island life where narratives coexist, in these tales we see into the worlds of Greek communities and Armenian fishermen in changing times, people doing the best with what they have and ultimately surviving. Because of this the visceral and politically tinged stories are quietly heart-breaking, from Samovar - a story about death and salep, is poetic, simple and haunting, ‘they lean against the great wall, dreaming of rebellion and steaming like mournful copper samovars, as they sip the Salep that will later warm their dreams.’ to Milk, a story that reads as a mad drunk man raving about his childhood memories of drinking milk, and yet does nothing other than utterly endear and tangle the reader into these enchanting ramblings and sketches of vulnerability. 

A running theme in his work is childhood, The Hairspring which I’ve learned is one of his most popular, is merely a schoolboy memory, yet I find it hard to read without tears forming. Similarly, with A Story About Springtime, a wistful look at first love set in the season, ‘It’s never going to come, and then it does. Springtime answers to all these descriptions, and many others, too… birds and butterflies, poppies and meadows, green grass and blossoms, mimosas and oleanders, dandelions and the sound of water, gypsies and lambs…you can find them all in a classic springtime.’ The imagery places you not only in the location but in the mind of the narrator and explores the essence of nostalgia as something sensory, that our emotions, feelings and memories are cursed to be mixed up in our changing surroundings, and to hit us again when the blossoms come.

The stories in the book are presented more or less chronologically (in order of first being published) but I do not recommend reading them this way. Rather I’d recommend dipping in and out, choosing which title grabs you and flicking from there, Dawe and Freely, in their afterward to the collection mention this, that the last stories, surreal and hallucinatory are also tinged with the sadness of a man who knows he will die and soon.  In the last story of the collection, Loneliness, a haunting tale told from the island, the lines read on perhaps his final message, ’Nothing’s beautiful without people. It’s people who bring beauty into a landscape. But as I sit inside the moment, this beautiful September day, with the moon in the sky and the sun shimmering in the distance, like a crystal garden…there’s no beauty. Just a void. It’s just a landscape, silent and badly painted…’   

If you’ve lived in Istanbul you’ll know these people, the essence of the Istanbul life goes on. The frustration mixed among dolphins and stray dogs, the joy in the minute details. This is what I love about this collection, it’s a perfect book about the greatest living city, and the people that feed and belong inside of it, their pain and loses and how they live beside each other.  


[1] Faik, Sait, ed Halman, S Talet Sleeping in the Forest,  Syracuse University Press, 2004 p.27


You can buy A Useless Man here


Lydia Beardmore is writer and photographer currently based in London where she studies Anthropology of Travel, Tourism and Pilgrimage at SOAS. She lived in Istanbul for a number of years and considers it her true home. She has written for a variety of publications including ReOrient, Time Out Istanbul and Little White Lies and hosts spoken word events and creative writing workshops across Europe. She also runs a female focused travel writing blog which can be found at www.puddingshoppress.com