Walter Mason on The Memory of Salt by Alice Melike Ülgezer

memory of saltThe Memory of Salt
Alice Melike Ülgezer
August 2012 (buy)

reviewed by Walter Mason

One so rarely encounters God in modern Australian literature that it comes as a shock to see the word, especially so early on Alice Melike Ülgezer’s The Memory of Salt, an extraordinarily lyrical and original novel. The novel’s narrator, Ali, hears the name of God at the same time as she encounters a pointless and unexpected death. She realises that it is this call to the divine that has both swept her up in a mystical, though unconventional, devotion that comes close to defining her, and made her feel alien in a culture to which she has some claim.

Ali is an alien trapped between two different cultures. It is not just the conventional ethnic division, but the more profound divisions that fill this novel: divisions between secularism and faith, music and science, rationality and insanity. Her father, a carefree Turkish traveller, impresses her with his sense of freedom and his complete lack of attachment to the material realities of work, accommodation and even national belonging.

The Memory of Salt tells the story of her parents’ love affair, an ill-advised and doomed thing between a temporarily distracted middle-class Australian girl and a peripatetic Turkish Sufi. Theirs is a physically charged, intensely sexual attraction, and the intensity of their intentionally exotic love is played out in forbidden couplings in foreign hotel rooms, the call to prayer ringing in their ears as they fuck, smoke and doggedly ignore the impossibility of any kind of future together. Sex, too, is charged with a quasi-religious quality:

While they made love her body became a hymn calling out through the shadows and the fruit, through the streets and the lights… And as she spirited herself like an incantation across the city she became higher and higher until all the voices of all the children, and all the city lights were one.

The child of this mystical union, Ali, returns to Turkey to attempt to rescue her hopelessly stoned father, and while there she is drawn into the embrace of his family’s singular religion. A newly-pious aunt convinces her that this return to her ancestral religion is an act of grace and an exercise in destiny, and she urges the bookish and clever girl to read the Masnawi, the long, mystical poem of Rumi that addresses God as a lover and the ultimate source of being.

This is a rich and delicious novel. It brings to life modern Turkish Sufi culture in a unique and unexpected way, and is, in its own way, a particularly Australian literary artefact, blending cultures and experiences in a way that only this country and culture would seem to allow. While it demands to be read closely and attentively, it rewards with its sad and constantly surprising story. I think it marks a fascinating and important contribution to Australian literary culture, and shines some light on a world I have rarely encountered in books.

Disclaimer: I must declare that this book is published by Giramondo, a publishing house headed up by my erstwhile academic supervisor Ivor Indyk. And while I have complete faith in his academic advice, we don’t always see eye to eye in matters literary. In this case, however, I have been won over by the writing of Alice Melike Ülgezer, an author I am yet to meet, and this review represents my honest and uninfluenced opinion.

walter3Walter Mason is a travel writer and speaker with a special interest in spirituality. His first book, Destination Saigon, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2010 to great critical acclaim. Walter has also featured in Vietnamese language broadcasts, and articles by and about him have run in the Vietnam Airlines in-flight magazine and other popular magazines in Vietnam. His book is sold in pirated editions in the backpacker districts of Saigon and Hanoi, where he is assured it’s a popular item. destsaigonDestination Saigon was named by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of the Ten Best Travel Books of 2010.

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