Sunday, 4 January 2009

Die Tochter des Schmieds

It’s a tough task to write up a favourite book. There are so many reasons to love it, and they’re so hard to put into words. With Selim Özdogan’s Die Tochter des Schmieds, it’s partly just the fact that reading the novel simply makes me feel warm inside, despite the sometimes less than cosy subject matter. Which sounds a bit lame, doesn’t it?

The storyline itself is not the book’s dynamo. It’s a growing-up tale of Timur the blacksmith and his daughter Gül, who is later to leave Anatolia for Germany. But what we read about is her childhood in the 1940s and 50s, playing with her sisters and helping around the house, almost a Turkish equivalent to Laura Ingalls Wilder – with a pinch of Cinderella thrown in. Because Gül’s adoring and adored mother Fatma dies, and Timur takes a new wife. The family’s fortunes take a turn for the worse, and Gül decides to leave school fairly young so that her younger sisters can go on with their education. She shoulders a good part of the housework, is apprenticed to a dressmaker and then agrees to an arranged marriage with Fuat, her stepmother’s brother. The couple have two daughters and get jobs as migrant workers in Germany, and the book closes as Gül boards a train for foreign lands in Istanbul.

So far, so ordinary. But it’s the telling that makes the book. A series of anecdotes is strung together in chronological order, punctuated by occasional insights into Gül’s future life in Germany. Narrated mainly in the present tense, the stories it tells seem very immediate and above all very affectionate. At times, life seems so bleak for Gül – slaving away for her stepmother or settling into dull married life disrupted only by Fuat’s national service – yet there are always small moments of happiness, as if remembered from that future in Germany that is our present. Reading scraps of newspaper lining in a cupboard, skipping on the street, playing a trick on her grandmother, meeting old friends.

Probably the most heartening thing about the book is the relationship between Gül and her father. Timur is a very affectionate man, who loves his first wife and his daughters, especially Gül. Although his second wife Arzu gives him the son he wished for, Gül has a special place in his heart. She visits him at work every lunchtime, scratching his calves and running little errands for him. And when she gets married, he visits her at her in-laws’ home every morning, talking about their everyday lives, the weather, their family. Although the book is not a tearjerker, the moment Gül says goodbye to Timur before leaving for Germany is truly moving.

What seems effortless narration is, I suspect, an illusion. The novel follows a conscious agenda, one that the author Selim Özdogan has proclaimed in the past – although never drawing up an exhaustive manifesto of his standpoint, so much of what follows is conjecture.

Looking more closely at Die Tochter des Schmieds, it turns out to be the backstory of an under-represented section of German society – the young women who came here in the 1960s and 70s as migrant workers. While a number of male authors were involved in the “Gastarbeiterliteratur” movement, few of these women have told their stories. Feridun Zaimoglu champions these women as equivalents to the Trümmerfrauen who built up Germany brick by brick after World War II – while in Leyla (published after Die Tochter des Schmieds) painting a more sensationalist picture of a young Turkish woman’s life – marred by a violent father and emphasising certain aspects such as religion.

Özdogan, on the other hand, opts for a less dramatic course of events. Gül is almost a prototype of a modest, self-sacrificing young woman. She is obedient and unassuming, never asking for anything outright and forgoing a teenage romance because it would not be acceptable. Yet her sisters break with traditional gender expectations to some extent, smoking, playing volleyball, becoming teachers and choosing their own husbands. The author, however, does not condemn the old institution of arranged marriages – he is interested in telling a story, not judging it. Similarly, although religion is very present in the characters’ language, there are few scenes in which they actually pray, and not a single one ever attends a mosque. Arguably, Turkey may have been a less religious place fifty years ago, but I think this omission is probably deliberate – Islam is a factor but not the dominant one, in contrast to many modern interpretations of the country. Özdogan is at great pains to avoid clichéd orientalism throughout, even in his language.

And to my mind it is Özdogan who has created the seminal narration of the pre-migration experience for the younger generations of Germany’s Turkish community. The fact that he tells such an ordinary tale in such loving colours makes it something very special – and I know that many Turkish-Germans have read it as their own mothers’, aunts’ and grandmothers’ story.

All this may sound very much like niche literature – great for people whose parents or grandparents went through the same thing, but not terribly interesting for anyone else. But that’s not what Die Tochter des Schmieds is – far from it. Much of the story could take place anywhere, from Yorkshire to Bergisch Gladbach. The characters fall in love with the cinema, lust after Cadillacs, win victories over dominant mother-in-laws, get caught up in fights, win the lottery but can’t claim the prize, discover reading as a wonderful escape from real life, and generally live life. What Selim Özdogan does is treat every character as an individual, just as we would like to be treated ourselves – not as representatives of any particular culture or tradition or nationality, not looking for pity or acceptance, perhaps only understanding. And perhaps it’s that which makes reading the book such a joy.

You can read a sample in English here. I hope you like it as much as I do. German film buffs may be familiar with the title already, as the director Fatih Akin is as big a fan as I am and gave the book a cameo role in The Edge of Heaven – in a mock-up of a Turkish translation, even having a couple of pages translated in case the camera picked them up. The whole novel was later translated into Turkish and published in Turkey, and the German paperback looks suspiciously similar to the film version’s imagined Turkish cover.