Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sabahattin Story Translation and the Moda Hounds

I was running the other day along the Moda waterfront.  I passed a group of yuppyish looking people each with a pure bred dog frolicking about their feet--collies, poodles, the ever present pit bull, pugs, Boston terriers, and a little Pekingese.  Like dog lovers everywhere (at least in Tucson and Boston), no one felt the need to keep their little bundles of joy on a legally mandated leash (there are signs!) and expressed mild surprise when Feefee or Muffy gave chase to the hapless runner.  "Oh, she doesn't usually do that, do you, mama's sweet little baby?  Take your teeth out of the man's eyes darling."  A few yards away stood another group of dogs, masterless, but eyeing a homeless guy sleeping on a bench with a hangdog look that was mildly hopeful.  They were a gang of Istanbul's strays, ratty eared and mangy, bony and looking as drunk as the homeless guy they pinned their hopes to.  They glanced from him to the group of pure bred's down the way.  Forlorn eyes blinking slowly, sighing with resignation every few seconds.  I think, ahem, they were barking up the wrong tree with the homeless guy.

Dog class wars.

It reminds me of a story by Sabahattin Ali, which I've translated here.  Ali was a writer back in the early twentieth century, one of Turkey's first to break away from the old literature about royalty and nobles, and write about the poor.  A kind of Turkish Dos Passos.  He was definitely a leftist, and like any decent Turkish writer, was arrested a couple of times.  Getting a little weary with the arrests, he tried to flee Turkey in 1945 but was assassinated in the attempt at a town called Kirklareli.

I tell you, being assassinated tells you your culture views you as important.  How many writers has America assassinated?  Hmmm?  Here's the story....

The Lucky Dog,
by Sabahattin Ali
translated by Jeff Gibbs

Why must I always write such dark stuff?  My friends--the delicate ones--don't like it.  "Do you only see the bad and ugly things?"  They ask.  "Will you always talk about hunger, nakedness and pain?  About the street urchins who sell newspapers at night and gather cigarette butts, about the people who kill each other for one inch of land or one drink of water, about the people whose souls are slowly withering away in prison, about the people who can't find a doctor, or who are forever denied their rights?  Don't you have anything else to write about?  Is there no good, beautiful thing left?  Why do all the people in your stories have such wan faces and heavy hearts?  Isn't there at least one human being in this whole country who smiles?  Who is lucky?"
Is it possible?  One must be found!  But to do this, I don't want to go poking into dark corners and scrounging the edges of society.  Everything is right out in the open, right in front of our eyes.  There aren't just smiling, lucky people, no!  There are even smiling, lucky dogs.  I've decided.  This time, I'm not going to write about hunger and hatred and misery.  I'm going to talk about comfort and love and fullness.

In the neighborhood where I live, the streets are paved and wide.  They are lined with trees that give them a beautifully dappled shade, though each tree has been raised with enough money to pay for the education of one poor child all the way through high school.  In the mornings, young mothers in chic outfits walk their children in colorful baby carriages.  The babes wear faces that radiate a cowlike complacency born from being so well raised, so robust, so white cheeked and healthy.  Many different kinds of toys are scattered over their silk blankets.  As they ring a small bell in one hand, they blow a whistle with the other; meanwhile in front of them stroll their older siblings explaining something to their be-permed mothers who keep tossing their luxurious curls back over their shoulders.  From time to time, the young mothers gather together on the sidewalk and while talking sweetly of little nothings, leave the watching of the children to the clean servants who follow four or five steps behind.  In a sandbox in a small park just off the street, little ones with shovels and pales build castles and rivers, which they then destroy with the swipe of a fist.  To the side sits a white-scarfed governess reading a book in a foreign language.  One covered lady is trying to distract a crying child, while on the next bench over, four pretty mothers are knitting and gossiping about their friends.  Everywhere is brightness and comfort.  Except, on everyone's face there is a vague expression of unease.  This unease raps them in a light but sturdy net which they will never be able to rip themselves free of nor ever take in hand.  It shows itself in the way that their laughter has a hollow echo, in the way it seems not too touch in any way the coldness in their eyes.  It's as if both speaker and listener are, at that moment, thinking of something else entirely, although they are actually thinking of nothing at all.  But they would never complain about this, in fact, they don't even notice that there's anything amiss.  Even if they're not happy with their situations, even if their laughter is empty, they do not want one single change made in their lives.

Every day on this street, a man walks a little dog.  He ss a huge handsome man who, from his high collared tan wool uniform, is clearly someone's servant, or butler, or houseboy.  The little dog has light brown fur and long ears that hangs to the ground.  It couldn't be more than a few inches tall.  In its leather collar and leather harness, it trots behind the man.  The man adjusts his steps to the dog.  If the dog stops, he waits.  And when the dog's whim has been satisfied and he starts to walk again, the man follows suit.  When the weather is cool, the dog wears a tan wool sweater with navy blue ribbon on the edges.  It passes over all four legs and has buttons running down his belly.  Judging from the design knitted on the back. it's obvious that it was made by an expert tailor--it glitters in the sunlight just as the little dog's clean and coiffed fur glitters.

When the creature, to answer the call of nature, pops beside one of the trees lining the road, the servant (who seems strong enough to hoe ten acres of farmland in one day without getting tired) or butler, or houseboy, or whatever he is respectfully waits for the animal to finish his business.  Then he slowly hits the road again.  This sweatered little dog never answers the growls of other dogs they pass on the street.  Even if a huge beast somehow frees itself from it's master's leash and runs growling and howling to its side hungering for a fight, even if it leaps on top of him, the little dog pays no attention whatsoever and keeps trotting along.  The house boy takes care of it for him with a shout and a kick.  And if there are several attacking dogs, the house boy picks up his master's beloved, brushes the dust off his fur and sweater, and wipes away any dirt or stain.  And there is a fear in the man's eyes that he cannot hide.  The dog, certain that it is free from all danger, looks straight down, licks itself, and while wagging its long-haired tail watchs as the house boy frantically checks every spot on its body to make sure that nothing has happened to his charge.

I saw the man who walks the dog in the butcher shop one day.  He was looking at the packages of sheep organs that hung in a line.  At last, one package took his fancy.

"Weigh this!" he said.  While he was counting his money, he started making friendly small talk with the butcher.  "I simply cannot understand why you don't sell the liver separately.  Our dog will not eat the lung or hearts or anything of the sort.  We always place before him only the best cooked liver.  Even if there's one little piece of lung mixed into the meat, he will not touch it and leaves it just where it is.  It doesn't agree with his stomach, I'm told.  The other day our vet paid a house call and said so.  Animals know.  Even if you try to mix the smallest fraction of ox meat into a beef meat ball, he will know.   One cannot fathom the work of God, as they say."

He suddenly whirled on the assistant who was about to wrap the whole package of organs.

"Didn't you hear me?  What's wrong with you?  Don't wrap all of it.  Separate out the liver.  The rest you can just throw away for all I care!"

He took his purchase and left.

Another day, I saw him standing in front of the gate of a flower garden holding something in a warm soft blanket to his chest.  He was about to get into a huge car.  When I noticed the blanket twitch and heard a little whining noise, I couldn't resist and sidled up to him.

"What's that?" I asked.  "Has something happened to your dog?"

The houseboy gave me the once over, then answered.

"Certainly not, thank God.  He coughed a few times today, that's all.  It's always like this in the Spring, but Madam panicked.  She wants me to take him to the clinic and have him checked."

Then, taking care that the dog did not bump his head, he carefully slid into the huge car, which then sped away and disappeared.

The next day I saw the same house boy entering the same garden.  This time he held the leash for a long-nosed, white-haired dog.  Next to him was someone else who wore similar clothes.  I was curious again.

"What happened?  Have you changed dogs?" I asked.

He eyed me up and down, clearly not remembering me as the man who'd asked him about his dog the day before.  Still, he didn't leave me without an answer.

"Could I possibly do such a thing?" he said.  "Inside.  In the club.  Listen, you can hear his voice."

It was true.  Just on the other side of a large mansion, in the space of the gardener's house came the little dog's voice in sporadic outbursts from the chic, pale green clubhouse.

"What in the world?" I said.  "Your dog never barked."

"Ah, he's in heat," he answered.  "He's looking for a female."  He looked into the face of the man next to him and smiled.  "This one is exquisite.    When they're in the mood, even an animal cannot control themselves.
He'd been very cranky, you this.  The Madam immediately put him in the car and ran him to the vet's  But I said, you know, the problem is this.  I mean, it will be no easy matter to find one suitable for our baby.  The Madam did not want a dog with no pedigree.  It would put him in a bad mood, she said.  So I went from mansion to mansion, until I found one suitable for him, an animal with a proper bloodline.  A noble bearing.  Our master had a talk with the master of my friend here and deemed everything suitable.  I will take ours to them, and they will bring theirs to us."

He pushed the gate of the fenced garden with his elbow and turned to his friend.

"Come along," he said.  "Let's go see if they will take to each other."    Like a shy bride, he entered the gate with the fluffy white dog following coquettishly behind him.

Now, I love animals.  I love all living creatures, and life, and beauty, and bliss.  A lucky dog such as this fills me with joy.  I did not come into this world to talk only of morbid things.  I am burning with the desire to tell warm, joyful, sweet tales.  And look, if everyone in the world found the same comfort as this lucky little dog, could I ever speak another word again about suffering or hardship?

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