I am not going to challenge C.S. Lewis’s great short book. In fact, I am not going to challenge any book.
Receiving news of the sudden death of a close friend is grief itself. Knowing that he had made his last call to you while your phone was switched off adds to your grief. Not knowing whether he called you before or after the accident that took him away adds even more. And sitting at your desk on a far away island and trying to type silly words after him is itself a challenge.
We his friends shall be deprived of his most bizarre sense of humor, the few Rebetiko fans in Ankara
of great tunes, a dozen neighborhood cats of generous quantities of cat food, and the rakı glass of his daily sorrowful farewell.
A common friend may be right when she said that Ümit Enginsoy hated life and life hated him. I just did not know that they hated each other this much; him for being so careless, and life for being so cruel in return. It is that hate that left behind a grief observed, a proudly empty bank account, a quiet mandolin, five orphaned cats, a collection of hats that will never be worn, a keyboard that will never click to produce eccentric ideas and a half-finished book that will never amuse readers with the memoires piled up over 11 years in Washington.
But we shall remember the hot August day in the south when his luggage did not contain a bathing suit but produced an umbrella, or the puzzled face of the European company executive who had briefed journalists and shyly revealed his company’s multi-billion euro ambitions for the Turkish market. “Any further questions?” the man asked, while Ümit was silently calculating that the company was hoping to sell to Turkey various systems worth over 10 billion euros. “Yes,” Ümit said, rose and asked him: “Do you have any sense of shame?” The man was able to smile only after having seen two dozen journalists on the floor laughing their hearts out. Ah, yes it was an intelligent joke. Now he could join the laughter. I didn’t tell anyone Ümit wasn’t joking.
He wasn’t joking either when he once described a top Turkish politician as “inherently a liar.” “It’s not his fault. He cannot tell you the truth even if he wants to,” Ümit said. “Suppose he is a nobody and you come across him at a hotel lobby. You must visit the restroom. You are desperate. You ask him where the restroom is. He will definitely send you to the wrong room.” We felt angry when Ümit’s inherent liar began to occupy a grandiose public seat. I feel angry because he still does.
And I felt strange when I read Ümit’s final column on these pages, “A few blond men,” in which he mentioned his blond heroes, Lawrence of Arabia and Alexei Petrovich Yermalov. His last paragraph read: “I recently bought a refrigerator magnet that shows the renowned actress Sophia Loren with a ginger cat which bears a strange and uncanny resemblance to my ginger and white cat. When I discovered the resemblance between both Lawrence and Yermalov and that cat on Loren’s arms and my own cat, I was afraid.”
Now I know why I felt strange.
Though I still don’t know why, I felt strange when I discovered a nonsense resemblance between Nikos Kavvadias’s poem, “The Pilot Nagel,” and Ümit as I struggled to translate the poem to Turkish on the same island where I learned of his death, this is Ümit, the “Pilot Nagel” (English translation below from The Collected Poems of Nikos Kavvadias by Gail Holst Warharft):
“Nagel, Norwegian pilot at Colombo,
when he’d given the usual course to a ship leaving for far-away, unknown ports got down into his boat, sombre and thoughtful, his heavy arms crossed on his chest, smoking an old clay pipe and talking softly to himself in a northern tongue; he left as soon as the ships disappeared.
Nagel Harbor, skipper of cargo boats,
having sailed right round the world got tired one day and stayed at Colombo as pilot, but he always thought of his native land and the isles of legend — Lofoten Isles — and he died one day on the pilot boat suddenly, just as he was escorting the tanker Fjord Folden out of the harbour puffing smoke as it left for the Lofoten Isles.”