London is a man-eater of a city. She swallows people whole, chews up their wallets and spits out the bones. And she has pretty cosmopolitan taste – the Irish, Hungarians, Turks and Berliners have all fallen under her spell.
There would appear to be a whole genre of novel that I’ll call “Frankie goes to Haringey”, for want of a better title. Young person moves to London from abroad and has exciting but ultimately rather banal adventures. Think Joseph O’Connor’s Cowboys and Indians for a start, with punk shenanigans aplenty.
Moving further afield than Ireland, there is Ronald Reng’s enjoyable Mein Leben als Engländer, in which the German author tells the story of a Hungarian who moves to London and ends up hanging out with Australians in Acton and posing as a doctor. You can catch Reng reading in London this coming Thursday, by the way.
Then there’s the Turkish view, in Esmahan Aykol’s Goodbye Istanbul, which I’ve read (or started at least) in German translation. I found it incredibly depressing and had to put it down, as it tells the story of a young woman who leaves Istanbul for London, dreaming of streets paved with gold, and ends up in a dead-end job in Crouch End or some such place.
The latest potential Dick Whittington is Hasan Kazan, the hero of Yadé Kara’s Café Cyprus. Kara was widely feted for her debut novel, Selam Berlin, in which Hasan witnesses the whole shebang of German reunification from his unique (or fairly unique in German literature) perspective as a Turkish-German Berliner. Now, as you may have guessed, Hasan’s off to London.
Set in the early 90s, the book opens with twenty-something Hasan singing Eddy Grant’s Gimme Hope Joanna at Charing Cross, out of sheer joy at being in London. The implicit Apartheid reference fits rather nicely with the book’s theme of crossing of cultures and racism – and its optimistic tone. Hasan sings along with buskers, bristles at English girls with no tights, admires Brixton style, and works in a kebab van on the weekends, serving football fans (“Vikings”) who don’t appreciate the subtleties of Turkish cuisine.
He gets a couple of other jobs at a Turkish-Cypriot supermarket, the café of the title and on a stall at Portobello Market, and scrapes together enough money for an English course and a sublet council flat in Lewisham. And he makes friends – not just his old mate from Berlin Kültür Kazim and his wife Sukjeet, but Betty and Khan and Miss Liverpool, and the delightful Hannah. A romance blossoms and fades, Hasan turns from an observer to an insider, and we see London from the Turkish-German-Cypriot perspective. Not one you get every day, and very nicely done at times: “big red double-decker buses roared along the windy road, shining out like fresh red chilli... a piece of West Berlin.”
There are lots of entertaining comparisons of London, Berlin and Istanbul – BMWs are a luxury in London but every last chav drives one in Berlin, the streets of Istanbul and London are full of litter and loiterers. And Kara goes into a fair amount of detail on the regulars at Café Cyprus, their religious, political and philosophical conflicts. Hasan, coming from both Istanbul and Berlin, is the perfect mediator between the Greek and Turkish fractions, but fails to calm the café’s troubled waters.
The narrative style is fun; a mix of yoof-speak and contemplation peppered with italicised English and Turkish, often curses. Hasan slips into song, raps, addresses the audience and is generally a very likeable narrator. At times the tone doesn’t quite ring true, the voice of the forty-something female author slipping in here and there, but it never grates as I initially feared it would. And there are lots of laugh-out-loud moments.
The author’s main thematic focus is what she calls “the new Londoners” – for some reason, the interview I’ve linked to here is unexpectedly unavailable in English. I wonder if anything can be done about that? Asked why almost all the characters have that lovely German thing, a “background of migration”, what she says is:
No, they’re Londoners and they’re the new Londoners, they’re part of the city like everything else. There’s a new London now that has nothing to do with our clichés from Hitchcock films. If you get on the tube in London’s inner city, you’ll see half the world on the trains, and it’s so absolutely normal – you can only guess at people’s ethnic origins. They’re Londoners, they live their lives there, they work there, they read the paper, pay their taxes and bring their children up there. So what!?
It’s true – but it’s something I, as a Londoner, have always taken for granted, as Kara says. In fact I always felt slightly sheepish and dull at primary school, as the only kid in my class whose parents both came from down the road, rather than Jamaica or Kenya or India or Greece or Turkey or Holland or Ireland. But living in Berlin suddenly makes that seem rather exotic, and Hasan certainly revels in London’s ethnic diversity, as does the author. Some of the descriptions of black mammas, Indian girlies and Chinese chefs, related in Hasan’s over-eager vernacular, come across as slightly clichéd and embarrassing, not blasé enough for a long-term Londoner, but perhaps that’s all part of the fun.
Yet despite Hasan’s blue-eyed enthusiasm, Kara doesn’t turn a blind eye to British racism. Sukjeet, a British Asian from – you guessed it – Southall, is the book’s cynical voice of reason.
“Cosmopolitans with gold credit cards and homes in London, Madrid and New York and marriage problems. They’re the hip white Western cosmopolitans. And when these guys go into politics and do something for the 'ethnic minorities', like street parties with Caribbean or Arabic food in Brixton and Notting Hill, yeah, then they celebrate multiculturalism. But as soon as an Arab or a black person turns up on their doorstep or is even made their boss, oh yeah, then they suddenly remember controlled immigration, start insisting on assimilation, etc etc.”
By the end of the novel, Hasan’s eyes have been opened to “rip-off London” but he still loves the place and stays on. The last scene, almost inevitably, is set at the Notting Hill Carnival. It’s a Bildungsroman of sorts, punctuated by music and fashion and parties and love affairs. But it has a flaw that seems to be inherent in the entire going-to-London genre – the plot is too weak. Hasan’s adventures in love and employment just aren’t quite enough to keep the story ticking over, and it rather peters out at the end. As fascinating as her observations of London may be, I feel Yadé Kara would have done well to give her novel a stronger focus than her hero’s anecdotes. A modern Dick Whittington needs to either luck out or lose out big-time.
Of course London, being London, doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks of her, and so we’re unlikely to see any of these novels translated. Which is a great shame, because there’s a lot we could learn from them.