Wednesday, September 23, 2009

encountering "Distant Relations"


What is left unsaid by the author can sometimes provide an ultimate, satisfying epiphany in a work of fiction.  This reflection developed slowly with me after reading "Distant Relations," by Orhan Pamuk, a short story appearing in the Sep. 7, 2009 edition of The New Yorker.  Pamuk was the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  His story seems a gem,  suited to gaining a better understanding of the art of storytelling.  (Spoiler alert: find and read the original first, if you can).

The story concerns a young, cosmopolitan, Turkish man who has finished his degree in America and is being groomed as a manager in his father's prosperous business in Istanbul.  Kemal is due to be engaged to a girl from one of the wealthy, Westernized families of the city, girls who were beginning to break the old taboos, and, occasionally, were brave enough to sleep with their boyfriends before marriage. Here is Kemal, summing up his relationship with the girl, Sybil:

"Believing myself a decent and responsible person, I had every intention of marrying her; but, even if I hadn't wished to, there was no question of my having a choice now that she had 'given me her virginity.'  Before long, this burden cast a shadow over the common ground between us, which we were so proud of--the illusion of being 'free and modern' (though, of course, we would never have used such words for ourselves), on account of having made love before marriage--and in a way this, too, brought us closer."

However, early in the story, he goes to a shop where Sybil had pointed out a handbag to him that she admired.  He is startled to find he knows this store clerk from his childhood; she is a younger, distant relation, and very beautiful.  Fusun stretches into the window display to fetch the bag from a mannequin, and Kemal is mesmerized by the too-short, lacy yellow skirt, and the yellow pump she kicks off while reaching.  They make small talk, and Fusan, a blonde, tells him the cost of the handbag, but she is sure the shop owner, a close relative of Kemal, will offer him a discount when she returns from lunch.  "It's not important," he says, and takes out his wallet, "a clumsy gesture that, later, Fusun often mimicked..." he tells us.

Well, we have a little foreshadowing here, and expect perhaps later we will observe a more intimate relationship, where Fusun grows to mimic him.

Meanwhile, Kemal seems to wrestle with his vision of himself as "a decent and responsible person," and his yearning toward perhaps a more modern, uninhibited sexual freedom.  He suggests to Sybil that instead of meeting in his office for their trysts, they meet in an unused flat his mother owns in the Merhamet Apartments.  However, Sybil doesn't want to sneak around in secret apartments as if she were his mistress.  "Where did you get this idea from, to meet in that apartment?"  "Never mind," Kemal says.  We feel the tension developing in Kemal's two states of mind.

Sybil points out to Kemal that the 'Jenny Colon' handbag is a fake, and suggests he "return the bag, get his money back, and run,' because the shop has cheated him. Kemal reluctantly goes back to the shop for a refund, but faced with the wounded pride of Fusun, and his continued enchantment with her, he is soon consoling the weeping girl with tender hugs.  She can't return the money to him because the shop owner has gone home and the register is locked--another humiliation for her.  Kemal struggles to get out his reply: she can drop it off at the Merhamet Apartments, where he tells her he goes afternoons, to catch up on office paperwork.

We seem now to be heading toward the denouement of our story; will Kemal shed Sybil and take up with Fusun, or perhaps he will break loose of his old-fashioned inhibitions and carry on with both simultaneously?  He leaves the shop in a state of shame and guilt, mixed with images of bliss, on his way home to his parents' house.  Enroute, he notices a yellow jug in a shop, and impulsively goes in and buys it.  The symbolism of the yellow equates, of course, as it does throughout, with Fusun.  (My sketch of the yellow, evening primrose serves as a lead-in to our story).

Our story, (related by Kemal in a distant past tense), hurtles toward a conclusion.  When Kemal reaches home he asks his mother for the key to her Merhamet Apartments, and it now becomes obvious it has been unused for years.  Kemal tells us the "yellow jug drew no comment from anyone during the twenty years that it sat on the table where my mother and father and, later my mother and I ate our meals.  Every time I touched the handle of that jug, I would remember those days when I first felt the misery that was to turn me in on myself, leaving my mother to watch me in silence at dinner, her eyes filled half with sadness, half with reproach." 

It was a masterful construction.  The story forces the reader to return to key encounters and dialog to satisfy himself that he, at last, understands Kemal, and the resolution of his story.  I felt that the author laid out all the foreshadowing and clues that successfully engage the reader, and lead to the conclusion that Kemal attempted to continue a double life with the two women, and ended up with neither, a saddened and lonely man in his later life.  Not many other short stories with such veiled endings are as well done.
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