The White Umbrella by Halid Ziya Usakligil – translated by Daniel Koehler


An elegant, white umbrella … while looking from my window down onto the embankment, I saw this umbrella, first from a distance – like a small, frothy, playful, flippant wave that had escaped from the sea for a while to go for a stroll on the embankment – walking along with a prancing undulation … After I sighted it, I forgot everything, I looked at nothing else, something I could sense in its bearing, in its walk conveyed even from a distance that this white umbrella, in that entire sequence of umbrellas, was a most joyful, a most merry little imp…

It slowly bobbed along the embankment towards my window. I could discern the fine gauze, ruffled in places by broad silk ribbons as it extended over the tulle towards the peak of the umbrella, the lacework that bunched up into little frills as it draped from the edges, and slightly below that, part of the slender yellow shaft. Looking further down – I could only see two fingers’ length; within a black glove that rested on a handle coated in red glass, its ample silk tassels swinging from the edge of the cords, I saw a hand, small enough to complete the ornamentation of this elegant umbrella … A hand that conveyed an unbounded impression of elegance in holding that slender shaft. A hand that seemed to wink at you and say: “Well, since you’ve seen me, you’ve realised what sort of person I belong to, haven’t you?” Yes, I’d realised; the figure that was shrouded within the flowing silk of a light purple yeldirmeunder this umbrella formed of froth, like a lilac that had blossomed under the shadow of a white rose, could only be as I had discovered it…

This was not a yeldirme, it was something rather different; it partly resembled a ferace2, but partly a yeldirme, so that, in sum, it looked like no item of clothing at all. Perhaps it was because of this, because it had come into being as the product of a young girl’s keen aesthetic sense, that it was pleasing to the eye. It was so simple that it had not a single piece of lacework, nor a single small ribbon. Yet its simplicity was so delightful that one’s eyes could not tire of taking in its delicate folds, rippling like an ornament from head to toe.

As they passed…did I mention they were two people? It was likely her mother, who waved at an empty paving stone on the embankment and spoke.

“Zerrin, let’s go this way!”…

They went, she receded; yet I had only seen that white umbrella! And that purple yeldirme, that black hand, and I had also heard a name: Zerrin!…I murmured the name to myself like a pleasant song: Zerrin?…

This name matched every other element, an arrangement of elements composed of colours: white, purple, and black. Zerrin!…A bouquet of flowers formed of a great white rose, of purple lilacs and yellow hibiscuses, and, at the very base of the stem, bound by a black ribbon; yet the black formed a blemish on this collection of playful colours.

They were walking away, disappearing; after they had eventually faded completely out of view, and I was on the verge of withdrawing from my window, I saw the white umbrella appear once more.

“Oh! They are returning, they will pass by again,” I said. Now I would see the face of this bouquet, a face to which I had already given form in my mind’s eye. Zerrin! … As this name ignited my fantasies, I envisioned a delicate white face tinged with a vague pink. This face had faintly coloured lips, and eyebrows that seemed to have been painted with liquid gold, collected from a moonlit night only to evaporate, leaving but a shadow; eyes that smiled with blue, with green, with yellow, or with a colour formed of a clay kneaded from all of these … They were approaching, I was watching intently, suddenly the white umbrella was cast back slightly, the face I’d been waiting for was completely exposed, framed by a fine gauze headscarf …

Some faces are simply too familiar to leave any doubt that they have been encountered before. This face was the face I had just depicted in my mind. When I saw it, I thought I’d known it for years. What’s more, this face danced with the cheery innocence of a life of sixteen years, still unsullied by a single drop of imperfection. Indeed, the first reaction it prompted was an infinite delight. There was a rapid movement, a tireless vibrancy on her lips, which were recounting something to her mother; in the motion of her eyes, which shifted direction from second to second, there was a vigour, an unrelenting agility. All of this communicated that the complexion of her dreams, still bright, had not yet been darkened for a moment, that this body wildly enjoyed the life before it; amidst the cheer in her countenance, one could discern only one indication of concern:

“I’m content with this umbrella in my hand and the yeldirme I am wearing. Now, I have a great wish. It is such a great wish that last night, while I was transfixed by the beams of moonlight falling onto the sea, my mind was entirely engaged by it. I imagine a wonderful carsaf3 to wear by the water: its upper gussets would be so long that they would drape downwards, and then a skirt the likes of which no-one has seen, if I could think of something new to add to it…”

There are some faces; they please the eye with such divine poetry, they carry one away to the pure desire of such an elevated world of sentiment, that before those faces, it is impossible to feel anything but a poetic, artistic, aesthetic sense of joyful admiration. The moment I saw this face, it was as though I was not before a girl, a creature of the fairer sex, there was not the faintest trace of those gusts of newborn passion, emanating from the vigour of youth, that impel our desires to possess. I looked on her simply as a being, no, not a being, a thing; beautiful, as beautiful as a lovely baby that catches the eye in a shop window, as beautiful as a pleasing face in a picture book that prompts a few minutes of contemplation. If she had been in my possession, I would have placed her on an alcove in my room; every morning, as I felt the need for a new desire for life, the need to be captured by a fresh passion for the world, I would approach her, and beneath her golden hair, her smiling eyes, and her joyful countenance, I would wash away the despairing gloom of my heart with the stream of solace that appeared to flow from them; that was all … In my hands, she would not be a young woman, she would be a picture to be admired, a sister whose smile would provide the strength to continue living. I would say to her: “Let me see you smile. You know that smile of yours; a lovely little dimple forms below your eyes, like a wellspring of laughter, and with little ripples, it sends the colour of joy across your entire face; smile with that smile of yours, this morning I need it once again…” But suddenly, that smiling face’s animated lips, now almost under my window, stopped, those lively eyes that appeared to look in every direction at every moment now fixed on a single point, the slightly indistinct pink colour suddenly paled, and the smile was wiped away. Then, the white umbrella straightened once more to its previous position; I suspected that under that white umbrella, the pallor that had fallen on her face was now giving way to redness. A strange sense compelled me to turn my eyes to the other end of the embankment.

At that point, I immediately understood the truth, and I said to myself:

“Aha!…Aside from the carsaf to wear by the water, that great wish, the white umbrella also has a little infatuation, and she lowers her eyes when she sees him.”

Sometimes a small sign will appear; we cannot identify or examine its power to guide, or its manner of communication; but it does more to explain the mysteries of a fact than even the most rigorous proof. What was it that caused me to sense a firm bond between the girl and this fellow coming towards her! I could not possibly identify or explain it. When she saw that tall, slim officer, his face shining under a woolly kalpak4 with that healthy dignity particular to twenty-five-year-old youths, she paled with such visible emotion as to leave no doubt that her being was not indifferent to him, unlike those passers-by who had been walking past him for some time. Now I looked at her counterpart in the distance…

He seemed not to have seen anything. He was walking forwards, his gaze firm; but why this forward stare? …Why did he not look at the white umbrella? Sometimes, deliberately averting your eyes has greater expressive power than even the most profound regard. I am certain that this officer’s gaze, so unfocused as not to see the place where it was fixed, carried precisely this sort of forced indifference. That gait! In that, too, I sensed a uniqueness, I found an unnatural manner born of the effort to appear natural, he did not sway; on the contrary, he stood upright within his embroidered officer’s jacket and red-hemmed trousers, firmly planting each leg on the embankment! But this gait, ever so free, nevertheless revealed a forced restraint, and it was impossible not to notice this bearing. “If anything disrupts that restraint of his, even for a moment, he’ll trip himself up!” I said to myself. At that moment, I could feel the young officer’s heart beating with an unusual intensity, as though I had placed my own hand there.

They passed each other by, without a glance they passed each other by; but it appeared as though fields of passionate desire spread from both of their bodies, each merging into the other.

They parted, they walked away, I turned my head and followed them, one after the other! Now they were both on the verge of disappearing from the end of the embankment, and at that point I saw the white umbrella stoop slightly to look backwards, she had controlled herself up to that point; but just then, she wanted to see him but one more time, even if only from a distance – indeed, only from behind. I turned my head in the other direction; at the same moment, the young officer also turned his head, as though a magnetic current, rushing from one end of the embankment to the other, gave notice that that blonde head had turned, and he, for the first time, looked back; after that, they both disappeared.

I said to myself:

“That look will glimmer in both of their dreams tonight, like a hazy sun in a distant sky.”

At that moment, my heart was filled with sincere wishes of joy for these two young people, I wanted both of them to be happy. From my window above, I celebrated the passion of these two lovely youngsters, throwing themselves into the embrace of each other’s souls as they passed each other by beneath my eyes.

Both were young, both had an absolute right to happiness.

Oh! What a beautiful, pleasing picture of joy the two would make.

One day, I observed this picture of joy from the window, which, a few months earlier, had provided the stage for the celebration of their timid passion.

At one end of the embankment, she evoked a life of pure youthfulness with her childish joy once again. “Have you packed the lunch tin … don’t forget the rugs? Where’s my bag,” she said. There were travelling as a family by boat, apparently to Göksu5. Yes, as a family…from that timid love, a happy family had appeared in short order. The young officer, after casting a look over the surroundings to be sure that nothing was left on the embankment, was holding his blonde wife with both hands to help her onto the boat; at that moment, I understood that my wishes of happiness for them were entirely fulfilled …

I said to myself:

“What a strange village this is! It must be the effect of the Bosphorus air, that eternal garden of spring. You see blonde girls and young officers, who, two months before, lowered their eyes when they crossed each other’s path; then you see them go to Göksu as husband and wife. If anyone is frustrated in their wishes for a happy and timely resolution of their matters of the heart, let them come here…”

I felt that I, too, had contributed to the joy I saw in them, in these people close to my heart.

***

It had been five years since I had left this place. One summer’s day, there was a faint sorrow in my

heart that I had wanted to soothe. It was the kind of sorrow that arises when your eye chances upon a little beggar or a fallen woman; even if the memory of these things disappears, the gloomy effect will, at the least, still leave a sorry disposition in a man’s heart for a day. I needed to offer myself a small escape from this grief. It was a pleasant remedy to cleanse my lungs with the pure, salty odour of the Bosphorus air.

To sink into a seating space on one side of the deck…to watch the English ladies occasionally lift the tips of their noses from the magazines in their hands as if to sniff the air, and sometimes to lose oneself in the view of the shore…

Impelled by enthusiasm for my chosen mode of travel, I was about to take the steps down to the ferry. I saw a young lady taking a blonde girl, perhaps four years old, down to the boat by her hand, and a little further ahead, a lady who had turned her head around to follow this act of kindness.

I would have spent no more than two minutes observing this pretty picture, formed of a lovely child with gold hair falling onto her shoulders, and a young lady whose beauty was apparent even from behind; except, surely by coincidence, the lady in glasses noticed me waiting further back…

“Zerrin!”

“This name can only be hers! Especially this child, that hair is Zerrin’s…” I said to myself. We’d reached the bottom of the steps, as they were boarding the ferry the white umbrella, no, this time it was not white…it was black!…For a second she turned her head, she looked at me for no longer than that, oh! The sorrow which that glance then aroused in me is indescribable.

For that mere second, her eyes were laden with such a profoundly grief-stricken darkness, and that face, which five years before had seemed to carry the joy of youth, bore such a pained expression of world- weariness, that I spoke with the pity aroused by the sudden realisation of a sister’s plight.

“Oh!…Zerrin is unhappy!” I said. I then followed Zerrin with my gaze as she traversed the distance across the little bridge between ferry and the pier, and along the short path that took her to the side of the rear cabin. Her hand held the black umbrella, now drawn shut in her hand, a black carsaf cast over her back, and the gloves on her hand were black once more…All was black!…That colour of black, which five years before had formed a blemish on the bouquet I had created from the white, the purple and the yellow, today draped the entire bouquet with a shroud of bereavement. Still the same elegance, the same distinguished air in her umbrella and carsaf, the same aroma of youth, albeit more solemn, in her bearing. But all of this wafted past, carried by a breeze of melancholy.

The child at her side did not look like a four-year-old; she looked as though the adventure of her life had been a distraught one, to the point that she did not love being alive. She walked in silence, clearly affected by a melancholy that had passed to her from her mother, viewing her surroundings with vacant eyes as she hung from her mother’s hand; as she walked behind her mother, she did not even feel the enjoyment of the folds, opening and closing, of her mother’s beltless garment.

They sat down there; I felt the need to sit in the middle cabin, and to watch the back of her head, which was visible through the open window. “Today, I have no time to occupy myself with those English women who turn the tips of their noses up into the air,” I said, and I sat down in a place where I could see her.

She sat there, motionless and silent; we parted from the bridge, and the ferry wound its way through the crowded traffic in the harbour, leaving the docks for Hisar; I looked only at her, why did this woman, whom I had never met, engage my attention so? The question was a mystery, but she greatly engaged me, that much was certain…Every so often, she would sit up and straighten her head scarf, or lean forward for her mother to repeat something; then, once again, she would sit, motionless and silent.

I thought to myself for a moment! Oh! If I were to rise and approach her now, to say to her: “Zerrin!” Yes, if I were to address her with this name alone … “Zerrin! You don’t know me, do you? But if only you realised how well I know you! I know the entire adventure of your youth; but today, I sense that there is a tragedy in that adventure, which I had thought was a happy one, I feel the need to weep, tell me what that tragedy is. Entrust your despair to this kindred heart, which is opening itself to you with the purest of intentions.” Then, if I were to prostrate myself before this being, which, five years before, I had wanted to

place in an alcove in my room, like a delightful representation of a joyful fairy, and if I were to weep for what had turned that icon of contentment into an icon of despair…

The ferry was passing along, leaving the piers behind in the distance; we were now passing Bebek bay, she remained as before, we approached Hisar; at that point I saw Zerrin sit up, crane her neck forwards and look to the graveyard, as though she were searching for someone, and wanted to catch sight of them.

My heart ached. She continued to look at length, turning her head as the ferry moved away, until the graveyard entirely disappeared from view; then, she sank back into her seat, and she remained still once again.

Once more, I saw that young officer in my mind’s eye. I attempted to convince myself.

“No, it cannot be! Is it possible? Can such a tragedy have occurred in this beautiful girl’s life?” The ferry was now approaching the the pier for the villages, they rose to their feet, I rose as well.

Why? I had no intention of going anywhere, certainly not here; but I wanted to see her once again. They were on foot, waiting for the ferry to dock; I was just beside them, and I could see part of her despondent countenance. A countenance that one would think had been perpetually washed with tears … At that point, I saw the child tugged on her mother’s hand, wanting to say something, and required her to lean over slightly. With a tiny, timid finger, it pointed at a tall officer, standing slightly ahead in a kalpak.

“Did my father look like that?” the child said in a timid voice.

Without answering, Zerrin straightened her back, I am certain that at that moment, two teardrops appeared in those eyes, green, blue, yellow, or a mixture of all of them. I could remain there no longer, I left and went up to the deck.

Yes, sometimes a little beggar or a fallen woman will prompt a gloom in the soul; at the least, it will leave a sorry disposition in a man’s heart for a day. Today, I had gone out to escape from that inclination; but alas; a cruel coincidence had placed a tragedy before my sorrow, one that would afflict me not for a day, but forever, whenever I recalled it…

As a foremost exponent of this new medium, Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil (1866-1945) is perhaps the first truly European writer in Turkish literary history. Uşaklıgil devoured the works of Balzac, Daudet and Zola in his youth, and led by these guideposts, he developed a frank honesty and sense of tragedy that earned him praise and renown. His two great novels, Mai ve Siyah (The Blue and the Black) and Aşk-ı Memnu (Forbidden Love), are both considered milestones of modern Turkish literature. However, he composed numerous other works of narrative prose, and his short stories, while less known, cast an important light on the literary currents of his day.

Daniel Koehler is a lawyer, former teacher, and admirer of Turkish literature. His work has previously appeared in Chicago Review, Columbia Journal and Your Impossible Voice.