"I fell in love with this book." -- Katie Kitamura, author of A Separation
A mesmerizing novel set in Paris and a changing Istanbul, about a young Turkish woman grappling with her past and her complicated relationship with a famous British writer.
After her mother's death, Nunu moves from Istanbul to a small apartment in Paris. One day outside of a bookstore, she meets M., an older British writer whose novels about Istanbul Nunu has always admired. They find themselves walking the streets of Paris and talking late into the night. What follows is an unusual friendship of eccentric correspondence and long walks around the city.
M. is working on a new novel set in Turkey and Nunu tells him about her family, hoping to impress and inspire him. She recounts the idyllic landscapes of her past, mythical family meals, and her elaborate childhood games. As she does so, she also begins to confront her mother's silence and anger, her father's death, and the growing unrest in Istanbul. Their intimacy deepens, so does Nunu's fear of revealing too much to M. and of giving too much of herself and her Istanbul away. Most of all, she fears that she will have to face her own guilt about her mother and the narratives she's told to protect herself from her memories.
A wise and unguarded glimpse into a young woman's coming into her own, Walking on the Ceiling is about memory, the pleasure of invention, and those places, real and imagined, we can't escape.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
For a short time when I lived in Paris, I was friends with the writer M. He was a foreigner to the city, too, which may have been one reason for our friendship. We went on walks around the city and we wrote to each other.
What remains of that time is a photograph of M. standing in front of a marble wall, looking at me with bewildered eyes. Above his raised eyebrow, a pale and jagged scar rises, deepens, disappears.
Actually, this may not be a scar at all, but a trick of the shadows, or the author's face folded with age. I do not recall a scar from our walks, but I often walked alongside him with my head down. And I'm not sure whether his eyes are really cast up in surprise, as I said, and not simply with impatience at having his photo taken.
Still, I remember M. as always a bit bewildered, and with the scar on his eyebrow-a sign illuminated in that brief moment of documentation when he looked me straight in the eyes.
But here, too, my account is faulty, since between my eyes and his stood the comforting length of the camera lens. As far as I can remember, I never looked M. in the eyes, even when we were seated across from each other at a café.
Some days, it's difficult to believe that this friendship really existed-with its particular logic, its detachment from the world. What I remember has the texture of a dream, an invention, a strange and weightless suspension, like walking on the ceiling.
In my childhood, I would hold a square mirror up to the ceiling. I examined every inch of this flat, white expanse, entirely removed from the jagged world on the opposite pole where people lived in shadows, weighed down by troubles. I understood that all anyone can do in the midst of darkness is retreat to their own, bright landscapes.
I think more and more these days that I should set down some of the facts of my friendship with M., to keep something of this time intact. But stories are reckless things, blind to everything but their own shape. When you tell a story, you set out to leave so much behind. And I have to admit that there is no shape in those long walks and conversations, even if I think of them often.
Let me place the photograph here, as the tangible remains of our friendship.
What follows is an incomplete inventory.
I met M. some months after I moved to Paris from Istanbul. I arrived in the city without a job or a place to live. I was enrolled in a literature program in order to obtain a visa, but I knew even before I came that I would not attend any of the classes.
I had enrolled in the same program once before, a few years after I graduated from university in England. I had a different vision of myself then, and I worked steadily to achieve it. I was living in London with my boyfriend, Luke, and putting together my life piece by piece. I imagined that Luke and I would move to Paris, become its natives, and lead the kind of creative life attributed to the residents of the city. We even spoke to each other in French while we cooked dinner, in preparation for our new life.
On the phone, my mother had urged me to go to Paris. I hadn't been back to Istanbul for several years and she always found a way to make this sound natural.
"Of course you should go, Nunu," she said. "What's there for you in Istanbul, anyway?"
I hadn't proposed returning home as an alternative.
It wasn't from my mother but from her aunts that I found out she was sick. I went back to Istanbul soon after this, canceling my Paris plans.
The second time I decided to go to Paris, my mother's aunts, Asuman and Saniye, warned me that it was foolish to live a life without roots. It was the type of thing they might have told my mother as well, the type of thing that would have made her silent. The aunts said I should be wise and build myself a life in Istanbul, as if building a life were a matter of simple engineering, as I, too, used to believe. A steady job, an easy commute, a reliable husband.
"Your poor mother never managed," the aunts said.
To build my life, I should have them nearby to make sure everything was done the right way. They wouldn't allow anyone to think that I led the drifting life of an orphan. When the time came, they would arrange for wedding presents, bed linens, tablecloths, dinners.
They even offered to help renovate my mother's apartment.
"We can make it just the way you want," they said, and told me about their plans. We would paint my mother's bedroom and change all the furniture. We would move my bedroom to my mother's study, where she had kept all my father's books. Once we took down the bookshelves, they assured me, the room would actually be very spacious.
My childhood bedroom would serve as a guest room for now.
"And later," Saniye said, "who knows."
They also said, on the afternoon when we went to the notary to finalize the sale of the apartment, that it was a waste. I had already told them I would use some of the money to go to Paris and pay for the program and my living expenses.
They said it again after I signed the papers. "What a waste. Your poor mother's home."
This was a name they gave her afterwards-my poor mother.
In Paris, I moved into a studio apartment close to the Gare du Nord train station, where frequent arrivals and departures gathered and dispersed people at every moment like a beating heart. I liked to think that I could board a train and leave the city anytime I wanted. The neighborhood disassembled itself and came back together several times a day and was an entirely different place at night. I did not feel in those first weeks that I was living in the city, but in the residues of many places.
I was renting the studio from a man who owned the Caf du Coin at the entrance to the building. After our brief meeting at the caf, he carried my single suitcase up the uneven wooden stairs and unlocked the door.
"If you need anything . . . ," he said at the threshold. Then he seemed to change his mind and went back downstairs.
My room was bare but not neat, as if someone had moved out and left behind belongings no longer needed in their new life. There was a mattress, a square table, a stove with a kettle, and four mismatched chairs. I had brought photographs, a small vase, and two porcelain statues from Istanbul and I put them around the room for decoration when I arrived. They seemed tiny and pathetic, and after several days, I put them back into my suitcase.
From my window, I saw a new pile of abandoned furniture on the sidewalk each day, for a municipal truck to pick up. Men in long and colorful tunic shirts would stop by to examine the pieces before walking up the road to congregate around the station to watch the new arrivals to the city.
In the afternoons, I walked down to boulevard de Sbastopol, where I stopped at a grocery store called Istanbul-Grill-Foods to buy a pack of roasted chickpeas. I followed the boulevard south, to the Seine, with the thought that I would walk to the neighborhoods of the Left Bank, or along the river to the gilded monuments-all the places that appeared in postcards of Paris and defined the city for those who didn't live there. But when I reached the river, I felt overwhelmed by the thought of everything that lay ahead.
One evening, I stood watching the brown water, panic rising up my throat. I found a bench and sat down, and I thought that I would not be able to get back home because I was so tired. After a while, I got up and started walking slowly, recovering my energy. By the time I approached my neighborhood and could see the turn to my street, I was thinking that I should have walked farther, and told myself that I would explore more the following day.
Some days, I sat at the Café du Coin at the entrance to my building. I often came there at lunchtime, though I did not eat, just sipped coffee, and was ushered to a small table by the back wall. Even after several weeks, the young waiter did not seem to remember me. He asked for my order with impatience and always brought a different size coffee than I had ordered. The café regulars ate copious salads piled with meats, or a tagine served with pickles and dried fruits. Some days they had a glass of beer, other times they ended their meals with dessert. I was struck by how appropriate their choices seemed. How they managed to pick the most fitting dish for that hour of that particular day. I wondered how it was that people knew what to do. Small things, I mean. The rituals of a day. The hours.
After the waiter cleared the regulars' plates, he brought them coffee and joined them outside for a cigarette. But first he would come to my table and tap twice, meaning that he wanted to settle my bill. I sat for a few more minutes, then gulped the remains of my cup, left some coins on the table, and climbed the stairs back up to my room.
There is a scene in one of M.'s novels, set in Istanbul. I read it when I came back to take care of my mother, and read that scene again when I moved to Paris. I already knew, in those first weeks, that M. lived in Paris as well, and this seemed strange to me. I couldn't imagine him anywhere other than Istanbul, in the landscape of his lonely characters.
In the scene, an old man walks past a bakery one evening, around sunset. It is the month of Ramadan and the bakery has a line of people waiting to buy bread before joining their families for dinner. (I forgave M. this cliché of writing about Istanbul on a Ramadan evening.) There is a long description of desserts filling up shop windows as the time for breaking fast approaches. For a second, M. seems to forget about his character and indulges in a description of mounds of shaved pistachio, rose-scented dough, and buttery pastries, like jewels that decorate the windows. It's just like him to turn away like this, to give in to the temptation of a feast in his writing. But the sentence that follows has remained with me ever since:
Seeing all the people standing in the bakery line with purpose, the old man feels embarrassed and turns away from the steaming stacks of bread on the counter.
When I first read this, I thought that the old man was embarrassed of the bread itself, and not just the people at the bakery, and I remembered this description when I came home from my walks, those first weeks in Paris.
I would sit down at the kitchen table and feel the objects of the room taking note of my brief absence and prompt return, and I was embarrassed.
"Shame on you," the aunts said when they called me in London to tell me that my mother was sick.
By this, I thought that they might mean one of two things. The first, that a daughter should know without being told about her mother's illness.
The second, that I had made my mother sick.
I realized later that the aunts were using this opportunity to tell me what they thought about my living situation-far from home and with my boyfriend, Luke, whom they hadn't met. Without a care for the world, they said. For the proper way to do things.
"Nejla let you run wild. And now she keeps quiet because she doesn't want to upset you," Saniye said.
"That's the truth. But we won't let her tiptoe around you anymore."
It had never occurred to me that my mother had allowed me to run wild. I would have said that all my life, I was the one who had walked on tiptoe.
In Paris, there was a Dutch boy in the program I'd enrolled in. I met him the only time I went to the university, to hand in my registration forms. We exchanged phone numbers, and we both said how much we were looking forward to the semester. The Dutch boy told me he had spent all summer reading. He named book after book in an expanding web as if he were trying to sum up the world. I nodded my head at his list.
"You and I have so much to discuss," he added when he was done, and I agreed.
He sent me a text message some days later to ask why I hadn't come to the first class. I told him I was sick and asked him to send me the readings assigned for the following week.
He invited me to a picnic on the riverbank that weekend, on one of the islands. "A couple of us from class are meeting up while the weather's still nice. You should come and cure yourself with a celebration."
I walked all the way to the river, crossed to the Île Saint-Louis, and spotted the gathering from a distance. My classmates were dressed in somber, stylish colors, holding their glasses with both hands as if they were precious objects. They all had so much curiosity on their faces as they chatted and nodded, nimbly holding their drinks, that I could not even imagine what they might be talking about. It occurred to me that I hadn't brought anything for the picnic and turned back.
On my way home, I watched a group of rollerbladers on the Pont Saint-Louis dressed in tweed suits and bowler hats, weaving in and out of plastic cones in tune to classical music. (M. would tell me later that he did not like this bridge, because it was not part of the real city; it belonged to tourists. And the two of us always walked the adjacent Pont de la Tournelle.) One of the rollerbladers, an older man who was a bit slower than the others, tipped his hat at me as he twirled around a cone.
When the Dutch boy sent another text, I told him I had enjoyed the readings and I would see him soon. After that, I mostly kept my phone turned off, except for the times I called my mother's aunts.