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‘Those carefree, glittering summers’ [book review]

A review of The Blacksmith’s Daughter by Selim Özdoğan, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu

Between 1961 and 1973, nearly 900,000 Turkish men and women left their homes to work in West Germany. This constant stream of migration was the result of a deal closed by the two governments; Germany badly needed workers, particularly in industrial areas like the Ruhr, while Turkey was struggling with high levels of unemployment. The solution seemed perfect: the Gastarbeiter (guest workers), as they were known, would be able to send money home to their families, and many eventually settled in Germany for good, sending for spouses and children to join them. Today, almost three million Germans have Turkish roots, including prominent politicians, footballers, businessmen and writers like Selim Özdoğan, but the picture of integration isn’t always as rosy as it might seem.

Cover image The Blacksmith's Daughter

Much could – and should – be written about this, but that really is the subject for a different post. In a literary or artistic context, however, it is important to say that the stories of the Gastarbeiter very often go untold, a part of the Germany’s cultural, political and economic history that simply falls by the wayside. In choosing to translate the first volume of Selim Özdoğan’s Anatolian Blues trilogy into English, Katy Derbyshire of V&Q Books has made an important move, propelling this aspect of Germany’s cultural heritage into the English-speaking consciousness and proving that ‘remarkable writing from Germany’ is so much more than we might initially think. The Blacksmith’s Daughter is a rich and moving story about childhood, family, hopes and dreams, what it is to come of age in a rapidly changing society, and how it feels to be caught between two worlds.

Gül, the main character and the blacksmith’s daughter of the title, learns from an early age what it is to be trapped between two places. Each summer, her family moves from their home in an Anatolian village to a house on the edge of a nearby town, where the local children laugh at her for speaking with a village accent. At home in both places but also in neither, Gül’s feeling of being torn only grows more pronounced when her mother, Fatma, dies of typhoid, leaving Timur the blacksmith to care for Gül and her two younger sisters. Though their Aunt Hülya is on hand to help, the girls are thought to be in need of a mother and accordingly a new one is found: Arzu, herself only thirteen years older than Gül. While Gül goes on to refer to Arzu as her mother, she and her sisters preserve their memories of Fatma – a handful of old dresses locked in a trunk, and the stories Gül is old enough to be able to tell the others. Though she has a strong relationship with her father, Gül will spend the rest of her life feeling adrift, bereft of the one person in the world who seemed truly to understand her.

The majority of The Blacksmith’s Daughter plays out after Fatma’s death, which seems in terms of both style and plot to function as something of a prologue. The first section of the novel, which ends with her death, is written in the past tense, after which Özdoğan switches to the present for a much more immediate, intimate style of writing. Apart from the very end of the novel, where we are offered brief glimpses of her sisters’ futures, the narrative sticks closely to Gül’s perspective, relating the minutiae of everyday routine alongside life-changing moments as she grows up, marries and has children of her own. Eventually, her husband leaves to work in Germany, a new life into which Gül will end up following him. Parts two and three of the trilogy – as yet untranslated, but hopefully to follow – are about her adult life between Germany and Turkey.

While Gül’s earliest years and experience of her mother’s death are of great significance, it isn’t until the second section that the novel really seems to settle into itself. This slightly shaky start soon gives way to smooth, melodious prose filled with poetic, sometimes striking imagery – ‘the children’s screams seem like the petals of a flower’ – and a haunting air of melancholy. We know from an early stage that Gül is destined to end up in Germany, and accordingly the entire novel reads like a work of nostalgia, words filled with longing for the very events they are describing. Though life is difficult – even after the family moves to town on a permanent basis, Gül feels herself to be an outsider, fails her final year of school and is forced by her stepmother to do the drudgery around the house – it is also filled with moments of intense beauty and harmony. Özdoğan excels particularly when it comes to describing ‘those carefree, glittering summers’ of childhood and the unbreakable bonds that exist between siblings; there are passages too, like his description of ‘the big water’, an annually recurring night-time flood, that seemed imbued with such magic I felt as though I was reading one of my own memories. It is a slow burn, this novel, but once it takes hold of you it is hard to put aside.

Contrasting sharply with the more beautiful passages are moments in which the modern world clashes with tradition, in which Gül and her contemporaries seem like pawns in a battle between two opposing forces. ‘“Why are you reading the newspaper like a grown man?”’ her stepmother asks a young Gül, just one of many sentences with which her thirst for knowledge is gradually quashed – yet years later her sisters, Melike and Sibel, will attend boarding school and become teachers. Fuat, Gül’s husband, meanwhile, seethes quietly against his lot in life, filled with an insatiable – and understandable – desire to have more than he does. Even a trip to the cinema can unleash feelings of hopelessness and restless ambition: ‘Films don’t make him forget his worries; they show him everything he hasn’t got.’ Germany, though far away from Anatolia in many respects, seems to be the only viable path, the only possible way to redress the unfair balance of life. By the time it ends, the world of the novel has grown almost without the reader’s noticing, in what is a clever reflection of the way ‘progress’ gradually alters societies, families and individual perspectives.

Though I have little experience against which to compare it, the setting of the novel reads very true to life – and, from co-translators Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu in conversation at the end of the book, I understand it will have special resonance for Turkish speakers thanks to the cultural and linguistic references hidden throughout the text. That this English version should be a co-translation is something of a marvel: the voice appears to be one, the text reading seamlessly, so that it is hard to tell the novel wasn’t originally composed in English, let alone translated by two people. Colloquialisms are inserted neatly, while details of buildings, food, local stories and superstitions help to compose a rich, vivid portrait of a world that seems both new and familiar.

The true strength of The Blacksmith’s Daughter lies in the fact that despite its clearly defined setting, the novel deals with themes that are entirely universal. We all understand the feeling of yearning – perhaps for childhood, perhaps for people now departed, perhaps for something yet to come – and of sometimes seeming like strangers to ourselves: ‘Feelings are like invisible people. They come, they go – they can be very close or you can see them as if from a distance, blurred and unclear . . . they all have a life of their own.’ Özdoğan writes with deep compassion, for his readers as much as for his characters, and the juxtaposition of events both happy and painful results in a reading experience that is bittersweet.

Beautifully crafted and giving a voice to previously untold stories, The Blacksmith’s Daughter is a novel doubtless deserving of a wide readership. To close, I can think of nothing better than a quotation from the book, which seems to encapsulate perfectly the message of the novel – and, indeed, the trilogy as a whole: ‘Though she doesn’t understand the lyrics, she can tell that this melancholy, this Anatolian blues, has something to do with death, with suffering, futility and the understanding that we still have to try, despite it all’.

The Blacksmith’s Daughter by Selim Özdoğan, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu, is published by V&Q Books in digital and paperback. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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