Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Reason to be Cheerful: Navid Kermani

These have been dark days for me. Europe has built in an extra hurdle for its citizens to vote in their countries of residence rather than origin, catching me out and rendering me disenfranchised (in conjunction with my own stupidity), while one annoying newspaper editor managed to vote twice. Then the election results came out and I was horrified that enough people in the UK are so strongly against Europe that they'll vote in a bunch of racists with pretty much only one policy: leaving the EU. Of course fewer people voted for them in local elections, because who wants to be actually governed by a bunch of racists with only one policy? But 27% of bother-to-voters are happy to send them to Brussels. I've been resident outside of the UK too long to vote there now, which means that I and many of my British friends here won't have a say in any referendum on leaving the EU. So I'm taking a friend's advice and applying for German citizenship, shocked into it by these horrifying election results.

Not that Germany is the promised land. A neo-Nazi got voted onto the Dortmund city council, and his mates physically attacked the other parties to celebrate. And Germany's Eurosceptics, the horribly elitist, neoliberal Alternative für Deutschland, will have seven seats in the European parliaments.

So I need a reason to be cheerful, and that reason is the writer Navid Kermani. He holds two passports, one German and one Iranian, and was last week announced as this year's recipient of the Joseph Breitenbach Prize, Germany's most lucrative literary award. It comes with a massive €50,000 – almost two months' pay for an MEP. The judges state that the award is mainly for his 1232-page novel Dein Name, which I haven't read. What I have read, however, is his shorter books Kurzmitteilung, Wer ist wir and Große Liebe. I wrote about Wer ist wir here, and I absolutely adore Große Liebe. It's the story of the narrator's first love, at the age of fifteen in 1980s Cologne, with all the teenage angst, embarrassment and enthusiasm that goes with the territory. But it's also about love and sex in medieval Islamic literature. Yes, they work together. Kermani uses looping repetition to emphasize important ideas – almost a Thomas Bernhard-like quirk that brought a smile to my face. Perhaps inspired by the medieval poetry, his language bounces cleverly between high kitsch and banality, creating delightful moments of bathos. And the German critics loved it too.

Also last week – a good week for Navid Kermani, who is currently a visiting professor at Dartmouth College – held a speech in the Bundestag marking the fiftieth anniversary of the German constitution. If you read German, please read it. It's a truly beautiful celebration of the utopian elements of the basic law, and a condemnation of where they are not upheld, particularly the 1993 adjustments to the article granting asylum to victims of political persecution. I shall give you a quick translation of the final paragraph. See if it makes you cry too, after the past weekend.

And so I would like to speak by proxy at the end of my speech, and in the name of - no, not in the name of all immigrants, not in the name of Djamaa Isu, who hanged himself by a belt almost exactly a year ago to this day in the Eisenhüttenstadt reception camp out of fear of being deported to a so-called third country without consideration of his asylum application, not in the name of Mehmet Kubasik and the other victims of the National Socialist Underground, who were defamed as criminals by the investigating authorities and the country's major newspapers for years, not in the name of even one Jewish immigrant or returnee, who can never consider the murder of almost his entire people overcome – but in the name of many, of millions of people, in the name of the guest workers who long since stopped being guests, in the name of their children and children's children, who grow up with two cultures as if it were the most natural thing in the world and now also with two passports, in the name of my fellow writers, for whom the German language is likewise a gift, in the name of the footballers who will give everything for Germany in Brazil, even if they don't sing the national anthem, and also in the name of those less successful, those in need of help and even those who break the law, who nonetheless – just like the Özils and Podolskis – are part of Germany, and also in the name of the Muslims who enjoy rights in Germany that, to our shame, are denied to Christians in many Islamic countries today, thus in the name of my religious parents and an immigrant family now numbering 26 members, I would like to say, symbolically bowing down at least as I do so: Thank you, Germany.

1 comment:

weltbuehneenglishtranslation said...

That's a great speech, thanks for pointing it out. I have also always held Willy Brandt's Kniefall for an absolutely decisive moment, particularly the continuing respectful discussion about it with those who did not approve of it at the time. It's enough to make one believe that democracy is possible!