The Four Humours
By Mina Seckin
Liberty, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9698729738
353pp.

Choler, phlegm, black bile and blood. Don’t know what they are? You will, quite well, when you read American writer Mina Seckin’s debut novel The Four Humours.

Constituting an ancient theory of medicine, these serve as a rough roadmap to Seckin’s protagonist Sibel’s personal investigation of grief, death, relationships and eating disorders. But this exploration is unlike any dictionary entry or Google Search find.

Sibel has already done those and the novel playfully asserts that this is not where the real meaning or discovery of The Four Humours is. Rather, it is in how the mind processes personal experiences as it tries to make sense of the world of which it is a part. Google searches and technical books on the four humours merely provide Sibel information, but she is the one who turns it all into personalised knowledge.

Accompanied by her American boyfriend, Cooper, Sibel comes to Turkey to visit her father’s grave and take care of her almost 80-year-old grandmother. The protagonist’s tone as she tells the story in the first-person is casual and frank and the reader soon starts to trust this friendly and open voice as Sibel relates how the world looks to her.

A charming debut novel paints a personal investigation of grief, death, relationships and eating disorders with masterful storytelling

This includes minute observations, details, feelings and impressions of her surroundings and experiences; for example, watching dramatic Turkish soap operas with her grandmother, or not sharing a room with Cooper — he has a separate apartment — are all details mentioned with a brilliant touch of effortless humour.

But instead of a linear narrative, Seckin employs the virtuoso technique of juggling several threads of interest simultaneously. Moments of tension and suspense are built in so smoothly that the reader forgets anxious expectations and is swept away by the masterful storytelling of the subplots. When the moment of discovery does come, it is with a strong, satisfying sense of confessional intimacy that leaves the reader charmed.

This is particularly true when Sibel — who resists and lies about visiting her father’s grave for a long time — finally reveals the reason for her reluctance to her grandmother: “If I go to the grave, then he’s dead, and I’ll know it. And that will mean he won’t be here anymore, will he?”

Seckin has clearly worked a great deal on characterisation. Almost all the major characters become close familiars, allowing us to know them in their everyday and not just in their overtly defining moments.

Consider the boyfriend. We learn that Cooper is an eye doctor although both his parents are artists. He wants to stay on in Turkey despite the political unrest, as he finds it “spiritual”. He helps Sibel’s grandmother with the cooking, reads Rumi and is a genuinely concerned partner — until the day he snaps because Sibel adamantly refuses to put up a fight against her overpowering grief.

Cooper calls her “stagnant” and Sibel deduces her inability to be resilient is because of an imbalance of the humours — her “lovesickness, irrational behaviour” must be the result of excess black bile.

Sibel’s grandmother, Nermin, is introduced as an ordinary, caring grandparent until the reveal of her life story, in which she is clearly far more. Nermin has known rebellion, clandestine meetings with her lover and the loss of her young husband to an earthquake.

She has been robbed of her only child and known grief in all its shades till she was compelled to jump into a river. What appears to be, the novel asserts through Nermin, seldom is. For her tragedy, she is shunned by society that openly distrusts her, because “what kind of spite was instilled in a grieving woman?”

Sibel’s paternal great-aunt, Refika, is the villain of the piece. Twelve years older than her sister-in-law Nermin, she adopted her nephew — Sibel’s father — after her brother’s untimely death. Now, at her nephew-son’s funeral, she steps forward to spit in the snow and announce that Sibel — for reasons as yet not explained — is to blame for her brother’s death.

However, as the story unfolds, Sibel’s face-to-face encounter with Refika uncovers different facets to the tale. This forces readers to stretch their imagination, and this is especially relevant as the encounter occurs when loyalties have already been instilled in both the reader and the protagonist. Here, Seckin shows how it takes courage to be able to see the human element in the enemy herself.

Over the course of her interactions with her elders, Sibel learns family secrets and history that help her on her quest to somehow ‘find’ her ‘missing’ dead father: “he’s the pulsing black hole I’m looking for, still.” Once, in an archaeology museum, she admits to the statue of the Greek goddess Demeter: “I want my father back … he is missing.”

For most of this strange, oddly touching tale of a young woman dealing with her father’s death by looking to ancient medicinal theory, listening to the narratives of her father’s close relatives, or by visiting places he had visited in his hometown, Sibel believes hers is a case of excess black bile. But, as she makes her way through the several interweaving stories and many realisations, by the end of it all she isn’t too sure.

Perhaps she can be expressive of all humours: choler when she is angry, blood when she is optimistic, phlegm when she is passive yet wise and black bile when she is melancholic. Also, by the story’s end, black bile is no longer just stagnant suffering. Rather, it has evolved into the Turkish hüzün, which implies melancholia and beauty instead of suffering.

Incidentally, Orhan Pamuk also explains this rather untranslatable Turkish word — hüzün — in his book Istanbul: Memories and the City. Seckin, meanwhile, makes her own allusions to the Turkish Nobel Prize winner: in exploring Turkey, Sibel and her family visit a physical museum based on Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence. When she breaks up with Cooper, Seckin’s Sibel muses about Pamuk’s Sibel from the same novel, whose fiancé left her for a younger, more beautiful woman. Seckin seems to be suggesting here that we read our own stories into our surroundings.

Besides the esoteric connotations of hüzün, the novel contains many other details of interest. For instance, in the Turkish language (as in Urdu), you ‘drink’ cigarettes; esmer is a pejorative word for dark-skinned women; kaknem is an insult meaning ‘bitchy’ and it was in the Turkish city of Tarsus that the Egyptian queen Cleopatra is said to have met the Roman politician and general Mark Antony for the very first time.

At one point in the story, Sibel wishes for a “heart washed under cold water … to make things clear, seeable, breathing again.” This is really the crux of the spirit of The Four Humours, which often leaves you breathless by its many remarkable lines of honest, often childlike, vulnerability in the face of the pain one undergoes whilst confronting the death of a loved one.

The very last section however, could have been left out. The story of Sibel’s paternal relatives — relevant to the central issue of her father’s death — has already taken hold in full force, so it was not necessary, then, for her to go on a journey to meet her mother’s side of family as well. Perhaps Seckin should have kept it as material for her next novel.

The reviewer is a poet and educator.

She tweets @FatimaI294

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 18th, 2022

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