THE TURKISH LOVER
By Esmeralda Santiago. Da Capo. 342 pp. $25
By the third page of Esmeralda Santiago's new memoir, The Turkish Lover, you know where the story is going: Certainly you can guess how it ends and feel all the heartache its author will endure on her way there. You've heard it before from a woman you know -- a friend, a relative or someone you've met on the page. It's as familiar as a fairy tale, with archetypes reversed and a devastating twist: Cinderella, having no lost shoe with which to take the measure of a handsome stranger, mistakes him for Prince Charming. You know all this, but you keep reading anyway, because it is a story that each teller makes richer, each new voice more compelling.
The specifics are as follows. A young Puerto Rican woman of independent mind, with a powerful mother and an absent father, falls under the spell of a much older man. He is a foreigner, darker-skinned than she, sensual if not an actual sybarite. He has no job, no workplace to which he reports; instead he has "business" dealings that are shady, even criminal. If he's not literally rich, he projects an aura of luxury and sophistication acquired in the company of wealth. He is a womanizer. But he has the power -- the leverage- -- to pry her out of her mother's embrace. He promises her a way to make the leap from one life to another, child's to adult's. Their love affair, not a happy one, becomes a kind of cocoon. Confined, ultimately claustrophobic, she tears her way out of it and emerges transformed.
"Men only want one thing," Esmeralda Santiago heard over and over, from both her mother and her lover. Mami established the rigid moral code meant to save her daughters from becoming too "free," like the American girls she found cheap and promiscuous. The author's presumed sexual innocence was a currency her mother defended with a desperation only a woman with a difficult past could summon. Mami's failure to find the perfect husband hadn't taught her that he didn't exist, only that her daughter would have to try harder to catch him -- be an even better "good girl."
Santiago's lover, Ulvi Dogan, was a suave, "assimilated" Muslim. His was a heritage that condoned male chauvinism and suppressed female sexuality, which made for a tidy fit with the macho double standard of her native Puerto Rico. Ulvi disapproved of her colorful bohemian clothes: He shopped with and then for her, shrouding her body in demure outfits and muted tones. What she had, he insisted, belonged to him only. When she allowed other men to see her dancing alone and exuberantly, rather than in his arms, Ulvi sulked and stormed away. Later, away from witnesses, he slapped her across the face. On other occasions, when she tried to join him and his male friends in intellectual conversation, he faulted her for taking that liberty. Santiago tolerated his tyranny, remaining faithful to him even as he had dalliances with other women. Though Ulvi could be harsh and condemning, though he wounded her as her mother would not, when she was his good girl, he conveyed his approval on the most intimate terms: with exciting and gratifying sex.
Santiago's erotic fascination with Ulvi was largely a function of his being foreign to her. His "exotic and mysterious beauty" was a powerful enchantment, a defining characteristic of stories about sexual awakening: An obvious comparison is Marguerite Duras's The Lover, in which a French girl of 15, living with her mother and brothers in Indochina, becomes the mistress of a Chinese financier whom she meets on the way to school. Ulvi has another incarnation in The Hacienda's Don Jaime Teran, the aristocrat and bank robber whom Lisa St. Aubin de Teran married at 17, following him from London to Venezuela. And yet another in Colette's Monsieur Willy, especially as recounted in My Apprenticeships. The urbane Parisian intellectual was as foreign to the provincial Colette as the cosmopolitan Turk was to the callow girl from Puerto Rico.
If the lover's foreignness allowed him to seduce the young woman and lure her away from her mother, it was the same foreignness that became the wedge that would eventually separate them. From the moment of her arrival in New York, at 12, Santiago had navigated racial prejudice. She was always the exemplary Puerto Rican who strove to gain admission to institutions controlled by whites, people who assumed from her name or face that she was not to be trusted or, worse, a moral reprobate. Ambitious, intelligent, seemingly tireless, she landed a job at the Museum of Modern Art before she received her bachelor's degree. Later, she used what college credits she'd earned to transfer to Harvard University, from which she graduated magna cum laude. But her attempts to forge an identity as a hybrid, Americanized Latina were stymied by her lover, who insisted on the Muslim model of a submissive woman. If she was going to work, she was going to do so in his home, to further his interests. When Ulvi returned to school, Santiago took clerical jobs to support him, and, as he advanced, she researched, edited and typed his thesis and dissertation.
Inevitably, Santiago's frustration with Ulvi gave way to anger; she didn't just suffer his tyrannies but perceived the irony of having sought independence in a controlling, chauvinist lover. "You must do as I tell," he said, as Professor Higgins once told Eliza Dolittle. Like Pygmalion, Ulvi wanted to invent a woman who suited him perfectly. "I can teach you everything," he promised at the beginning of their affair. But his arrogance and bullying ultimately galvanized Santiago to leave him, and to reflect that "neither of us counted on what I had to learn being different from what he wanted to teach."
Eventually Santiago returned to Puerto Rico, where her mother lived, to make a documentary film. She'd come full circle, no longer the girl who left home seven years before -- no longer Negi, her family nickname, nor "Chiquita," Ulvi's infantilizing endearment. ("I felt so inconsequential," she writes about her time with Ulvi, "that Chiquita seemed like the perfect name for me.") Naming is, of course, a powerful act. It is when Adam names the beasts that he establishes his God-given dominion over them. That is perhaps why the Turkish lover, who only called Santiago by "Chiquita," never allowed her to refer to him as "darling" or "sweetheart" or anything else but his name. Santiago learned to save the woman with a real name in "a secret place no one could reach." It was there that she finally found herself. And it was there that she discovered the courage to face "a future that belonged to Esmeralda."
Of course we know the end of this story. Esmeralda Santiago is well known; her memoirs -- When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman -- as well as her novel -- America's Dream -- are widely read. We know that she freed herself not only from her lover's arms but her mother's control, from the suffocation (and comforts) of life among 10 siblings. The Turkish Lover doesn't cast the vivid narrative spell of Santiago's earlier descriptions of growing up in Puerto Rico, but there is considerable suspense in watching and waiting for her eventual escape. If Santiago is not a consistently elegant writer, she is one who has forged a remarkable life and career that readers cannot help but follow. *
Kathryn Harrison is the author of "The Kiss." Her most recent memoir, "The Mother Knot," was published in June; her new novel, "Envy," comes out next spring.