The Memory of Salt
Alice Melike Ülgezer
From the first pages of this debut from Melbourne writer Alice Melike Ülgezer, the reader is asked to stand in an unsteady place between two worlds. The novel opens on a ferry in the Bosporus, gazing at the islands between the Eastern and Western sides of Istanbul, and rocking in the waves of an intergenerational conversation in Turkish, English and German.
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.
The Memory of Salt follows young Turkish-Australian Ali’s journey to learn about her father Baba (the gender of Ali is not specified but the autobiographical nature of the story suggests female). Baba is a difficult man who wavers between being a holy fool and a schizophrenic bastard, bringing enlightenment and chaos into the life of Ali’s mother, Mac, an Australian doctor, and later into the life of Ali. The search for identity through the story of paternity is not unusual in a first novel but here it transports readers both geographically and emotionally as the couple meet in Afghanistan in the 1970s, journey through Turkey to London, and fetch up in Melbourne.
Their story is told in fragments of memories, as Ali journeys from Melbourne to Istanbul to visit her father. Each fragment is packed with violence and music, fear and solitude and love. The language throughout is full and sensual and unusual, reflecting Ülgezer’s other practice as a poet and musician. The sky in Istanbul wasn’t just blue, it ‘bled out from ebony blue to lilac, shot with crushed porcelain and strung with the lazy silver ribbons of pigeons.’ The strength of the opening scene is not quite sustained throughout, but given patience the cumulative effect of these fragments builds a vivid and distinct world, one which carries its share of emotional power.
Istanbul is richly drawn, sprawling with its timelessness and unpredictability, and the novel is soaked in the taste of raki and beer, simit and fish, and of course, plenty of coffee. Readers familiar with the city will be taken back to its sounds and smells; the rest will be at least intrigued. It’s the star of the show, perhaps more even than Baba, who can be utterly exasperating once we see his dark side.
Like its pivotal character, this book has many flaws. There are times when the untidiness of the language becomes an obstacle to the story. Scenes in the Australian desert feel tacked on, and Mac’s character deserves more development. At times the dialogue is awkward, the descriptions overblown. But they are, in the main, flaws that result from passion and feeling, as Ülgezer seeks to inhabit her in-between place, that watery territory between cultures, between experience and memory, and between mysticism and mental illness.
Mevlana, as the great poet Rumi is known in Turkey, was himself entranced by grief when, in his poem The Masnavi, he spoke of ‘intimacy and longing for intimacy, one song / A disastrous surrender, and a fine love, together.’ (trans. Coleman Barks) The pain of longing that suffuses his poetry is felt here too, and it’s born of the same disaster zone of contradictions. It’s fuelled by heartbreak.
This is an unusual debut, not simply for its setting, but because Ülgezer’s efforts with language bring about the conversation between the two interpretations of Ali’s world; the language works harder than the story itself. That language sometimes misses its mark, but it is alive, grasping. In a literature dominated by cold, clean prose and simplicity, The Memory of Salt has a refreshingly complex flavour.