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NEW YORKER Stories

Orhan Pamuk

"Distant Relations"

September 7, 2009

"It was as I was walking Sibel home that evening, my arm wrapped lovingly around her sturdy shoulders..." Is this supposed to be a joke? I'm not really asking. I know a little bit of Turkish, and I've read a lot of Orhan Pamuk, so I'm open to the suggestion that "sturdy" is a neutral adjective here. Not that believe it. Especially when the remark is followed so quickly by this:

In fact, I had never been one of those suave, chivalrous playboys who are always looking for the slightest excuse to buy women presents or send them flowers, though perhaps I longed to be.

"Distant Relations" tells the tale of a young fiancé's attempt to do, just once, what the suave, chivalrous playboys of his imagination would do — and how the attempt fails. A move toward darker playboy behavior, unlikely to be suave and certainly not chivalrous, appears to meet with greater success, but as we are in the melancholy world of Pamuk romance, a truly successful success would probably look like the worst sort of failure — an indecency, perhaps. But we know, before the story is over, that "misery" is our young man's lot. 

"Sturdy" turns out to be the only thing that Kemal, the narrator, has to say about his fiancée's body. As such, it's an ironic choice, because Sibel has been educated at a convent school in Paris, and "sturdy" isn't the quality that one associates such an imputation of finesse. It is not suggested that Sibel envies the school friend who has stayed behind in France (and around whose schedule a lavish engagement party has been scheduled); rather, Sibel seems to regard her sojourn in Paris as a lifetime-sized bottle of exquisite cologne, a scent that she can wear for the rest of her life. We can almost smell it ourselves.

Sibel took back the bag, whose interiors I had been quietly exploring. "You're so knowledgeable, darling, so clever and cultured," she said, with a tender smile, "but you have absolutely no idea how easily women can trick you."

This is an ambiguous, possibly even unwise, thing for a bride-to-be to say; but there is no suggestion that Sibel is particularly wise. A smarter woman would have accepted the designer handbag, which Sibel had admired in a shop window and which Kemal had gone back to buy for her, with good grace, instead of advertising her sophistication, as Sibel does, by pronouncing it a fake, and instructing her fiancé to return it, not for credit, but for a cash refund.

For, as it happened, buying the bag was hard enough on Kemal. In the shop the first time, he recognizes the salesgirl as Füsun, a distant relative whom he hasn't seen since she was a child. A child no longer, she elicits a wealth of admiring adjectives from the narrator.

In a flash she had slipped off one of her high-heeled yellow pumps, extending her bare foot, whose nails she'd carefully painted red, onto the floor of the display area, and stretching her arm toward the mannequin. My eyes travelled from her empty shoe over her long bare legs. It wasn't even May yet, and they were already tanned.

Their length made her lacy yellow skirt seem even shorter. Hooking the bag, she returned to the counter and, with slender, dexterous fingers, removed the balls of crumpled paper, showing me the inside of the zippered pocket, the two smaller pockets (both empty), and also a secret compartment, from which she produced a card inscribed "Jenny Colon," her whole demeanor suggesting mystery and seriousness, as if she were showing me something very personal.

(Jenny Colon was the so-so opera singer whom Gerard de Nerval worshipped, even after her death.)

Leaving the shop, Kemal reminds himself that he's going to be marrying a lovely girl, &c — and resolves to forget the shop. Would he have managed to do so, if Sibel had not sent him back?

While the narrator burns with forbidden passion, the actual author of the story begins to unroll the reason why Kemal has not seen Füsun sooner, or more recently — why, in short, his mother has cut the girl and her mother. He does not unroll it all the way: it is never stated the the mother dropped Füsun because she had grown up to be such a beautiful young woman that she might distract Kemal into a mésalliance (Füsun is actually more of an in-law than a relation). No: the mother thinks it quite sufficient to tut-tut about the girl's having entered a beauty contest. "Can there be anybody in this country who doesn't know what kind of girl, what kind of woman, enters a beauty contest?"

"That was my mother's way of suggesting that Füsun had begun to sleep with men," muses Kemal. What would his mother say if she knew about Sibel?

Little by little, sophisticated girls from wealthy Westernized families who had spent time in Europe were beginning to break this taboo and sleep with their boyfriends before marriage. Sibel, who occasionally boasted of being one of those "brave" girls, had first slept with me eleven months earlier. But, by this point, she felt that the engagement had gone on long enough and it was about time we married. I do not want to exaggerate my fiancée's daring or make light of the sexual oppression of women, because it was only when Sibel saw that my "intentions were serious," when she was confident that I was "someone who could be trusted" — in other words, when she was absolutely sure that there would, in the end, be a wedding — that she gave herself to me. 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 could never have used such words for ourselves), on account of having made love before marriage — and in this way, too, brought us closer.

Kemal's mother wouldn't say word, one expects, so long as there was a marriage in the end.

"Distant Relations" is a fine old European story about the time when the bourgeoisie was still preoccupied by respectability and its "appearances." Set in 1975 — and in hardly-progressive Istanbul — it is a shocking reminder of how recently that confusion persisted.

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