Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Selim Özdogan: Wo noch Licht brennt

Having been thinking a lot about cronyism among critics, I have to start this review with a full disclosure: Selim Özdogan is a friend of mine and has been for about ten years. The friendship evolved through the first book in what became this three-part series, Die Tochter des Schmieds, when I was a pretty much unpublished translator trying hard to get a foot in the door. Next came Heimstrasse 52 and now we have the final part, Wo noch Licht brennt. Together, the three novels tell the life story of Gül, who grows up in 1950s Turkey in the first volume, comes to Germany to work in book two, and in the new novel grows old between the two countries.

In my past reviews (linked above) I wrote a lot about what these novels mean in political terms: finally giving a literary voice to the women of the Gastarbeiter generation who propped up the West German economy, emphasizing individual stories rather than religion, painting a three-dimensional portrait of a family. All that is still true of Wo noch Licht brennt but I found myself reading it differently. By now, I feel so familiar with Gül that the last part of her life story felt like a warm and welcoming chat, catching up with a friend after a long gap. There would be tea, and with Gül involved probably pastries. The TV might be on in the background but we'd ignore it, or maybe we'd end up talking about soaps.

At the start of the novel, Gül returns to Germany after attempting to retire to Turkey, only to find that her husband has been having an affair while she was away. The Turkish husband having an affair with a German woman is a bit of a trope in stories about Gastarbeiter, I presume because it happened a lot in real life. There are other things in the novel that ring true because we've heard about them before: Gül's difficulties with the German language, her feeling that the Germans are cold, her daughters' and grandchildren's lives being very different to her own. And then there are surprising individual moments: her friendship with a young criminal, her observations of drug use around her, the family back home suddenly arguing, a memorable dieting episode. Gül's husband Fuat is still around to provide wry comments and comic relief, and her daughters lead their own lives with their own ups and downs. We get a potted history of Turkish-German media habits, from five-mark pieces saved for telephone boxes to multiple mobile phones, from the one Turkish programme on German TV to satellite dishes to Facebook.

And of course the story is told from Gül's perspective, although not in the first person. It's the tone, perhaps, that makes the novel feel so personal. Gül reflects on life a great deal; she's not an educated woman and the language is simple and sometimes verging on kitsch, but the ideas are not. We follow Gül's moral dilemmas and feel with her; she feels destined to suffer because she lost her mother at a young age and became a kind of mother to her younger siblings. And she thinks about the nature of truth and how we all twist it. Özdogan uses a lot of sensual language and comparisons, and I was very pleased to find once again the repeated glimpses into the future that made the previous novels shine in terms of style. Like its predecessors, the book skips from one episode to the next, showing us small moments of tenderness, shock, pain and friendship. A life lived simply under complicated circumstances.

What Wo noch Licht brennt reminded me of, quite strongly at certain points, was Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. I hadn't read her work before the first two in the series, but I think they too fit the bill. Selim Özdogan tells the story of a woman's life in loving detail, revealing social changes as they affect her and showing us how she reacts to them. And he also draws us into that life, makes us almost part of the family, creates an addictive pull so that we have to find out what happens next to this woman, whose life is superficially unremarkable. I think this trilogy is a great achievement – as a fictional document of a group of people otherwise ignored by German writers, as a piece of fiction that calmly tells a gripping story, and as a warm and loving portrait of a strong woman, a great survivor.

I wish Anglophone readers will one day get an opportunity to read it. 

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