Ali, whose gender is ambiguous, is the child of a Turkish father and an Australian mother. These parents meet in Afghanistan when Mac, a young doctor doing the Australian backpacking tour of the world, saves the life of a German tourist. Hanif is a circus musician who plays his clarinet to cheer up his friend in the Kabul hospital. In one of those life-changing moments, Mac chooses not to evacuate to Germany with her patient, but to stay and visit the circus. It turns out to lead to a relationship of mixed blessings.
The story begins as Ali and her father Ahmet aka Aykut are taking the ferry to Istanbul. Within sight of the city, tragedy unfolds, and from there the story is told in fragmented flashbacks which reveal a portrait of Ahmet which is both tender and tormented. He is a visionary Sufi with a serious drug habit, possibly the cause of his schizophrenia as well as exacerbating it. Though symptoms vary from person to person and with the treatment undertaken, schizophrenia causes confused thinking, delusions and hallucinations, but to the child, Ali, he is an enchanted being who sings in a language she doesn’t understand, who talks the sort of nonsense children love, and who makes captivating music.
Ali’s mother loves the child that emerged from this difficult relationship but wonders sometimes if she should ever have married Ahmet. He’s a violent man, a thief and a drunk. Her memories of him conflict with those of Ali, and she would rather not revisit the past.
Because there is a price to be paid for exploring the past:
And suddenly with an almost intolerable dread, I realised something had changed, that my revising of the past was beginning in its way to revise us. Slowly, almost imperceptibly our shared past both actual and otherwise was beginning to inhabit us in this retelling. It was beginning to rework us. (p. 78)
Narrated by Ali, this novel skilfully depicts the joys and sorrows of living with someone who has a mental illness. Ülgezer writes with rare accomplishment: she never loses sight of Ahmet the man, and despite the depths to which his illness sometimes sinks, he always retains both his dignity and his charm.
Sian Campbell commented on gender ambiguities in her review and I found this aspect of the novel fascinating. I also interpreted the narrator as a female because of the way she engages with her parents, and because I had also absorbed the idea that the novel was partly autobiographical, as so many first novels are. It is unfortunately only too common for women to be victims of domestic violence, and in The Memory of Salt, the issue is made more morally complex because Ahmet is not responsible for his actions when he is suffering delusions. When afterwards confronted with the evidence of his brutality, he refuses to understand that he is the perpetrator because he refuses to acknowledge his illness. (Or get treatment for it, regarding his fate as preordained by Allah).
The women react to Ahmet’s violence in different ways: Mac after a long period of pitiful hope that things might change severs the marriage and goes back to Australia from London, an option she can take because she has a career. Ali, largely passive, trails along as a dependant after her father until he deigns to get treatment for her. It is not until late in the novel that she finally expresses her anger and tries to force him to confront the violence he dished out. It is late in the novel that Ali begins to feel less like an Alice (Ally) and more like an Ali. This change, it seemed to me, is because of the way that this character is treated in a gendered society like Turkey: unconstrained and able to follow Ahmet into all kinds of places; punched in the face during a melee by someone other than Ahmet; pummeling open a door and other aggressive reactions. But they could equally be manifestations of the way Australian women are generally assertive and perhaps also of the way international tourists are given cultural leeway in places that usually confine women within strict roles. (Female drunkenness among tourists, for example, is tolerated in Bali where it is never manifested among local women).
Jennifer Mill’s review at Overland is useful for its references to cultural issues that were unfamiliar to me.
There is a thread in Sufi poetry of surrender: to a god, or to a mystery, or to love, or wine. As well as a religious meditation, this idea of surrender is something that resonates powerfully with travelling: accepting the flow of other languages and the habits of other cultures. There’s a humility point where we must let go of control and allow the experiences to wash over us. Turkey asked that of me, and it struck me that Ülgezer asks the same of her readers. It’s an invitation as much as a demand.
This interpretation suggests that the passivity with which Ali accepts Ahmet’s violence is partly cultural and partly religious as well as being indicative of a mature understanding of the nature of mental illness and an homage to the man within the tormented mind.
I think I was able to enjoy this book because it is not the first I’ve read which demands surrender from the reader. There are cultural allusions and countless expressions in Turkish and German that I did not understand. Sometimes I could make sense of them, and other times I could not, and in the end I simply allowed them to ‘wash over me’ because it seemed not to matter.
I particularly liked the image of the kitchen table that recurred. Until recently the kitchen table was the heart of most homes, and for many years at Mac’s house in Melbourne the wood grain showed evidence of all kinds of metaphysical detritus. But when Ali goes home as an adult for heart-to-heart talks in search of her identity and mixed heritage, the wood grain has been filled in. Mac has obliterated her painful memories, especially of the time when – in a symbolic gesture reflecting the abandonment of their family life – Ahmet trashed the kitchen.
I haven’t been to Turkey yet, but the novel paints a convincing picture of the young Ali discovering the culture of her father. In some ways, it is alien to her. She is familiar with the food, but not with a ritual such as throwing a cloth on the floor for family to gather and eat. In Turkey she is constantly surrounded by extended family where she communicates in scraps of German and Turkish and is relaxed about not understanding everything. She is delighted by their easy generosity and the welcoming of unexpected visitors. It seems very different to the quiet solitude of the time she spends with her mother in a more ordered life, and it leaves us wondering about the damage to Mac’s soul. The carefree girl who travelled and loved with a spontaneity one can only admire might be able to obscure the gaps in the kitchen table – but her scars are there to see just the same.
Author: Alice Melike Ülgezer
Title: The Memory of Salt
Publisher: Giramondo, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo
Direct from Giramondo