Saturday, 18 October 2008

No Escaping Zaimoglu

You may have picked up on the fact that Turkey is this year's guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In fact if you live in Germany, you probably can't help noticing - huge posters all over the place, newspaper articles galore, and hundreds of new books in translation. Plus a boycott and calls for freedom of speech from Germans and Turks.

There's one writer who seems to be everybody's darling in this context - Feridun Zaimoglu. His Liebesbrand was longlisted for the Book Prize, and nominated for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in spring too. I personally was disappointed by it, finding it had a really great opening but fizzled out about halfway through. But why not try for yourself - there's an extract in translation (trans. Zaia Alexander) available at Litrix.

There's also a good piece about Zaimoglu and the literature of migration on the website of Swansea University, where he spent June as writer in residence. Tom Cheesman writes: "Within contemporary German literature, Feridun Zaimoglu is now the figure of a Turkish background to have become fully integrated in the literary scene." And deservedly so, I have to agree. He also happens to be a very charming man. But I often get the niggling feeling he's everybody's favourite token Turk.

Take the review of Liebesbrand from the Goethe Institut I linked to above, for example. It includes the sentence: "...we find in Liebesbrand a masterful and very modern employment of oriental storytelling with a plot that is a bit wild, unashamedly romantic and linguistically intelligent, original and witty." OK, it's only a short review, but there is no indication of where these elements of "oriental storytelling" are. I certainly didn't notice them, finding the novel fairly standard German storytelling stuff. Why does the reviewer seem to feel the need to get the word "oriental" in there? At readings, Zaimoglu is also often asked questions about Turkish politics. This is a man with a German passport, who's lived in Germany for the past thirty-odd years. He may well follow Turkish news, but he's far from an expert on the subject, as he readily admits.

And don't get me started on the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for writers whose native language or cultural origin is not German. It's an admirable idea I suppose, but if people have issues with the Orange Prize, what on earth would they make of this one specially for foreigners? Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the authors don't deserve it. What I object to is the whole ghetto-isation that goes on here. You can look at the winners down the years on the website. What strikes me is that these are by no means unknowns in need of a literary leg-up: Saša Stanišic, Rafik Schami, Ilja Trojanow, Emine Sevgi Özdamar - all of these names have made it into English, for God's sake. Into English! So don't tell me they're of marginal interest. Many of them are household names, in a certain kind of household... If you ask me, the Chamisso Prize has become obsolete - and a good thing too.

Germany (or parts of it) seems to be finally realising its migrants are part of society as a whole, and of the literary establishment. OK, two authors "with a background of migration", as they like to put it, on the twenty-name longlist for the German Book Prize may not sound much in comparison to the Booker, for example - but for Germany, that's pretty fantastic. So I was astounded to read Ilma Rakusa's feature in New Books in German, Notes on Contemporary German-Language 'Migrant' Literature. Rakusa, herself a one-time Chamisso prizewinner, writes: “ is the writers who have come to German culture from elsewhere who are substantially enriching, expanding and stimulating that culture – not only through their unusual literary subjects but through their courageous, at times risk-taking, use of language." Jesus, can they not just be writers? Do they have to be expanding the bloody culture all the time, adding linguistic spice?* Or, to turn that question on its head, does every good writer not expand and stimulate the culture?

Zaimoglu, at least, seems to be riding the wave, using his almost rent-a-quote status to put his often contentious points across. He welcomed Turkey's role as Guest of Honour, but gave the presentation itself a thorough slagging off, saying it would do "zero" to improve Turkish integration in Germany. He recently gave an interview to an up-and-coming journalist and blogger, Eren Güvercin, reiterating his anti-assimilation stance (I wrote about that here). I'm with him most of the way there, actually - certainly, you don't get told how to live your life half as often in Germany if you're actually German. And he also told Güvercin: "I've got another 30 or 40 pages to go to finish my new novel. ... It's about great yearning and where it takes you if you're not careful - and nobody ever is."

Sounds like full-on hot-blooded fiery oriental stuff. I'm looking forward to it.

*Don't worry, she's not that banal. I added that bit about the spice.

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