Sunday, 27 November 2011

Steven Uhly: Adams Fuge

The writer Steven Uhly has been in the German press rather a lot recently - firstly for winning the Tukan literary prize with his novel Adams Fuge (Adam's Fugue) and secondly for taking part in a feature on the TV magazine Aspekte, in which he went to Jena and talked about how uncomfortable he feels in the former East Germany, prompting much indignation in said university town. I will mention only briefly that I find the feature's format dubious and superficial, especially bearing in mind that the very same team already used it during the summer to rush racist ex-politician Thilo Sarrazin through multi-ethnic Kreuzberg, enraging the locals there too. But I assume it's good for viewing figures and cheap to make.

Why Jena, and why Uhly? Because Jena is where the three neo-Nazi terrorists ("NSU") originated from who murdered ten people over the past 13 years before two of them were found dead in a caravan. And because Uhly's novel touches on one of the most scandalous aspects of this already extremely scandalous case: the V-Leute in neo-Nazi organisations.

I'm not sure how other inland security agencies work, but the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution uses long-term informants within groups it investigates, called V-Leute. They were originally called V-Männer (and Hitler was one too, according to Wikipedia) but they obviously thought up a gender-neutral term. They're not members of the security services themselves but they are paid for their involvement in the organisations in question, be they illegal or merely suspected of endangering the constitution. In 2003 the constitutional court found there was no case for banning the extreme right NPD party because its organisation and its policies were propped up by paid informers. About 15 percent of the top officials were secretly being paid by the government, as The Guardian reported at the time. Let's say it's a grey area as to how active these informers are. In the case of the terrorist cell from Jena, very grey: the three terrorists were considered members of the "Thüringer Heimatschutz" - a network masterminded by the V-Mann Thilo Brandt that forged links between neo-Nazis groups. There has also been speculation about a former security agent who was present at the scene of one of the murders. And certainly, the large amounts of money thrown at the V-Leute in neo-Nazi organisations didn't prevent ten people from being murdered and didn't lead to the terrorists' arrest.

Ulrich Peltzer looked at an informant within a left-wing group in his excellent novel Part of the Solution (trans. Martin Chalmers). Here, the V-Mann is the one who steps up the intensity of the group's activities, acting as an agent provocateur.

In Uhly's novel, the V-Mann is a neo-Nazi who creates a computer game in which players have to kill as many Turks as possible. He also seems to be double-dealing with all sorts of agencies and forces, from Mossad to Kurdish nationalists. But back to the beginning.

Adams Fuge is a very eccentric book. To attempt to sum up the plot: a boy is born to a German mother and Turkish father in Mannheim, the mother leaves her violent husband and he moves to Turkey with his three children. The boy joins the army and happens to kill a Kurdish rebel leader, more or less by chance. He is given a medal and sent back to Germany under a false name as a reluctant secret agent. His task is to get rid of the neo-Nazi but before that he finds his long-lost mother and her new family. There follows much bizarreness. More agents and double-agents crop up than in a Mission Impossible double-bill, but Adam/Adem is haunted by the people he kills on his rather clumsy trip around Germany, who help him to survive. His father is kidnapped by the Kurds, who demand a mysterious file which is embedded in the racist computer game and Adam/Adem and the whole reunited family set out to rescue him, evading the police as they do so.

Family secrets are flushed to the surface and, as one might expect, Adam's mother has the odd issue with her son committing rape and murder all around the country. And there's an extended family discourse on anti-Semitism prompted by the involvement of a Mossad agent. Having suffered a shot through the head, Adam begins to lose his eyesight under pressure, during which he comes across his childhood first love. A spot of romanticism between the sheets soon puts that right though and rids him of all those ghosts, just in time for him to save the day. If only it weren't for his bungling Turkish brothers...

The outlandish plot is a pastiche lightly camouflaging some deep-ish ideas about identities. Adam's official nationality wavers in the course of the novel as he is given one passport after another: from Turkish to German to Israeli to American. Like Adam/Adem himself, the other agents he encounters have rather fluid motivations (like the aforementioned V-Mann, who does of course come to a satisfyingly sticky end). All of them lead dual lives with multiple names, and almost all of them are double-dealing somewhere along the line, whether for pecuniary or personal reasons. As the narrator cack-handedly bumps off enemy agents (usually to his own great regret), their identities pass over into his own and they carry out dialogues inside his head – at times he's unsure who he really is. And of course he's half-German and half-Turkish, which prompts some thoughts on the issue of multinational origins. The Tukan Prize jury wrote:

The secret services play a double game and impose identities on their agents to replace their humanity. Only when Adam refuses to define himself via national or religious affiliations can he stop the killing. (...) In Adams Fuge Steven Uhly plays provocatively with our prejudices, only to demolish them in the end.
I'm not entirely sure that second part is true, although it may have been his intention. The characters do indeed seem like caricatures - the liberal German grandfather, the wife-beating Turk, the wandering Jew, and so on. But he doesn't have time to demolish our prejudices about them individually because he's too caught up in his fast-moving plot. So all the work of demolishing is done by means of rather clumsy inner monologues or discussions within the family. And perhaps I'm missing something, but there are times when these sections just read like bad writing and made me want to skip a page.

What attracted me to the book in the first place is that it's a rare example (in German-language literature) of a phenomenon that the scholar Katrin Sieg calls "ethnic drag". That is, donning a different ethnic identity on stage such as the Jew or the Native American. Another recent example would be Astrid Rosenfeld's strikingly similarly titled Adams Erbe, featuring a Jewish narrator. In this case, Uhly is of German-Bengali origin, "with partial roots in the Spanish culture" as it says at the back of the book, whereas his narrator is a Turkish German. I can well imagine he gave him this national identity both in the belief that national identities are bunkum and in the assumption that a book about a Bangladeshi secret agent wouldn't work terribly well. But because the characters are so two-dimensional I got the impression that he hadn't gone to much trouble to research that particular identity other than giving his narrator an affinity to minarets and an unhealthy respect for his superiors. Add to that the fact that he pronounced his name wrong when I saw him reading from the novel, and the whole effort seems to fall slightly flat.

Nevertheless, it's worth reading for the sheer fun of it all.


Fernando Kalamia said...

Thank you for this interesting critique! However, I am not sure wether I agree with your opinion. I read the novel about three months ago when it just had been published and the NSU terrorist where still under cover. So I could read it without having to compare the novel to reality. That's why I think that it's not adequate to require any special expertise from an author who's intention is not to be correct but to entertain and, by the way, expose some real problems. I find it where interesting how the author shifts between various levels of perception and - at the same time - remains always down to earth when the action comes. And the action is what we would call reality inside the fiction. The protagonist is unable to change this level, it goes on and on because there is too much power involves, to much money and to many prejudices. But what he can change is his own mind. When the action comes to its end, he finally stops harming other people, and it's a bit of bitter irony that, by the time we read his report, he may already be dead.

kjd said...

Thanks for your comment, Fernando. I just felt that the attempt to transcend the imaginary boundaries of national/ethnic identities fell a little flat with all the other stuff going on.