The Memory of Salt
by Alice Melike Ülgezer
Published August, 2012
The histories of our parents are always somewhat mysterious to us. Those stories and memories we inherit are necessarily incomplete, yet they do not always remain undisturbed, mere objects of sentimental value. Instead, we might add to them and refashion them, moulding them into shapes that give them sense and fit them into the context of our own lives.
In her impressive first novel, Alice Melike Ülgezer explores the mechanisms of such imaginings. Her narrator is Ali, the child of Mac, an Australian doctor, and Ahmet, a Turkish musician and amateur mystic. The couple first meet in Afghanistan in the late 1970s when Mac, a resourceful and sensible sort, is travelling the hippie trail. Her encounter with the impulsive and charismatic Ahmet, who has apparently run away and joined the (Afghan) circus, quickly evolves into a classical tale of amour fou. They leave Afghanistan – narrowly missing the Soviet invasion – pass through pre-revolutionary Iran, linger awhile in a fractured Turkey and Thatcherite Britain, before ending up in Australia. With these dishevelled terrains behind them, their relationship begins steadily to unravel.
Ali picks up the thread of their tale from his home patch of Melbourne’s inner-north, all laneways and ethnic diversity. Though Ali’s gender is never mentioned, most of the signs point to him being a male. His function is an imaginative one: he is to record, remember and recreate, rather than develop fully as a character in his own right; the ambiguous gender is part of this. It is an uncommon approach to the question of identity, since it is not about self-understanding or identity construction through one’s parents, but about understanding one’s parents as people in their own right.
The danger here is that Ali might well have come off as little more than a cipher, a foil for his father’s eccentricity or his mother’s stoicism. It is certainly the case that the novel is not as moving as it might have been, had we been able to enter more fully into Ali’s emotional life (for a voyage into the past, it is curiously low on nostalgia). Instead, Ali’s imaginative foray into the chronicle of his parents’ romance and eventual separation is matter-of-fact, lacking in speculation or even much regret. By way of compensation, however, Ülgezer invests Ali with a keen sensory perception, full of painterly, visceral similes: he perceives a ‘low smudge of rivergums’, a ‘smear of light’, a ‘landscape throb[bing] in and out of focus’. It is beautiful writing, never overwrought. Just as effective is her ability to convey Ali’s near-constant state of bewilderment, his sense of being locked out of a greater comprehension. Our understanding of Ali derives less from perceiving what he feels than from witnessing his own lack of understanding.
Much of the confusion comes via Ahmet, his ‘Baba’. Baba’s riddles and religious allusions, and his tendency to drift off into dope-driven ellipses, are mysterious and frustrating. An elusive lover and father, Baba often wanders away, abandoning whatever realities might get in the way of his visions. Suffering from violent outbursts and paranoia, he in turn makes those around him suffer. Moreover, he might well be a compulsive liar. When Baba alludes variously to having a gypsy or Kurdish background, it is not clear whether there is a grain of truth in his tales, or if his claims are merely an expression of his sense of himself as an outsider.
Here, though, everybody is an outsider. One of the points Ülgezer is making is that there are some things we are not meant to know. We make do by finding meaning where we can, in whichever way we can, but there are always limitations. Following this logic, the novel is, like Baba, at times wilfully confusing or obstructionist. In its early part, the characters are not always distinct and conversations are difficult to follow. This is partly a result of the text being peppered with Turkish and German words, some of which remain untranslated. In some cases the reader, like a child, learns their meaning through context; in others, the reader does not. While Ülgezer’s characters sip tea on a Bosphorus ferry, we are chucked in at the deep end.
But this is not necessarily a bad thing. As with learning a new language, it is worth persisting, since the conceit is ultimately successful on two levels. On one hand, it recreates the estrangement of a Westerner abroad, like that experienced by Mac and, to a lesser degree, Ali: the thrill of the new is hitched to the mild panic of incomprehension. On the other hand, we are forced to develop a more intuitive reading, to enter into the musicality of language and to indulge in a little narrativeparkour. Before long, the leaping between languages, narratives and time zones gets easier, smoother, more instinctive – and rather more fun.
Ülgezer also builds a strong sense of the hidden and the esoteric. Running through the central love story is a rich stream of Sufism – the inner, or mystical aspect of Islam. Sufis strive to attain a form of higher consciousness deriving from the unity of the earthly and the divine, and emphasise personal closeness to God. Baba’s mental illness and substance abuse, manifesting in a hedonistic lack of self-control, make him a wayward dervish spinning from the correct path. He compulsively recites verses (echoing the sacred practice of dhikr), launches into polyglot rambling, has attacks of graphomania, and confuses poverty with asceticism. He loves God and the world, as a good Sufi ought to, but he is inattentive, distracted, undisciplined. Baba’s tragedy – and that of his family – is that his attempts at communion and ecstasy alienate his loved ones and create chaos rather than harmony. For Ali’s father, the line between madness and divinity is a thin one indeed.
There is also, perhaps inevitably, a nod to Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005), Orhan Pamuk’s influential memoir. This is evident not only in the theme of parental estrangement, but in the mention of hüzün, the melancholy that Pamuk claimed attaches itself to the city. Yet this evocation feels strained and unnecessary, because the mood of Ülgezer’s novel is not quite one of wistful nostalgia or saturnine self-pity. It is rather more energetic and youthful than that. A more appropriate concept, perhaps, might have been keyif (from the Arabic keyf), which describes a kind of manic joy, a love of life, of music, of living in the moment and sensual (often drug and alcohol-induced) highs. Despite everything, Ülgezer’s characters know how to have a good time.
Music is central to this atmosphere of risk and abandon. It brings Mac and Baba together in the first instance, but thereafter plays an increasingly ambivalent role. At times, Baba strums and whispers to himself, or vanishes into the night to take part in a frenzied jam; at others, he discards his instruments, deeming them too worldly by half. Often, music is something that may also be linked to solitude, and can be a vehicle of meditation and alienation as well as communion. In one scene, for instance:
A singer with the sallow hooded eyes of a reptile in a dinner jacket stood before them. He gripped a microphone in one hand. Holding it close to his mouth, he almost cried as he drew out his first melancholy words, capped with quarter notes. The song was more of a recitation, an excruciating invocation, the sound of a lover crying out from his wounds. Ahmet was silent a while as he listened. The men in the audience swooned as they uttered in hushed tones, ‘Aaa-aakh!’ ‘Oo-oof!’ Some hung their heads, shaking them slowly, loosely. They studied their hands or kneecaps. Others tipped their heads back, as if on cue, and drained their glasses.
Here life is fluid and rhythmical, but we are ultimately on our own with our experiences. Ülgezer’s muscular prose hints at this estrangement – ubiquitous stray dogs pick over rubbish, dark water slaps against night-time ferries, a muezzin’s call cracks over the dry summer sky, and everyone is constantly either drinking or smoking (in Turkish, aptly enough, one does not ‘smoke’ a cigarette, but rather ‘drinks’ it). Though the general tone is rather languid, beneath the surface beats the quickened pulse of impending calamity.
Refreshingly, Ülgezer resists going down that well-worn path that Ali’s mixed background offers – the playing off of the sensible West against the sensuous East, with oneiric Istanbul a symbolic bridge. Her narrator is not preoccupied with national identity or belonging; nor is he overly torn between cultures. ‘My map of Istanbul,’ Ali explains, ‘was one whose topography described the love of my parents, through suggestion and memory and the resonance of absence. It was one that emerged and evolved with every street I took, the scribble of every bird I watched against the sky.’ Here, civilisations don’t clash so much as merge – or submerge. It is a very particular kind of disorientation.
Estrangement and the quest to overcome it are at the novel’s core. It is about communion and connection, about the longing for others and to know others – family, lovers, the divine – and the hard work of living and of making the present while toiling over the stuff of the past. Connections are made and broken over the everyday rituals of tea and wine drinking, of sharing a meal or a smoke. Madness merges with spiritualism, creating a lure from the challenges of the social and the terrestrial. In skilfully negotiating these elements, The Memory of Salt is a strong and restrained debut.