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Book review: Without a Country by Ayse Kulin

Exploring identity. A multigenerational saga based on anti-Semitism, the novel raises questions about the shifting cultural identities of migrants & their descendants,

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” said Karl Marx.

Recent events have demonstrated that state-sponsored racism is not a thing of the past. In such times, it’s refreshing to read of histories that tell a different tale — of humanism and compassion. This, indeed, seems to be novelist Ayse Kulin’s forte.

One of Turkey’s bestselling authors, her previous novel, Last Train To Istanbul, set in war-ridden Europe of 1941, was about the concerted efforts of Turkish diplomats to transport 40,000 Jews across Nazi-occupied territory to a haven in Turkey.

In her latest work, Without a Country, skilfully translated by Kenneth Dakan, the author returns to the theme of anti-Semitism.

In the Author’s Note she writes of a debt of gratitude to the scientists “who helped modernise Turkish universities and educate a golden generation of my fellow countrymen. Hitler expelled these men and women from German universities in the 1930s simply for being Jewish, leftists, or critics of Nazism.”

Thus, this novel too draws upon the strands consistent in the history of the Jewish faith from the 5th century BCE onwards: persecution, dispersal — from which we get the word diaspora — and subsequent resettlement and assimilation of asylum seekers in new lands.

In short, the story has all the ingredients of the quintessential survivor’s tale. However, by casting it as a multigenerational saga, spanning 80 years, from 1933 to 2016, the author raises interesting questions about the challenges of integration, intermarriage, and the shifting cultural identities of migrants and their descendants.

The novel makes a strong start. The year is 1933, the month March, and it is the day when the Enabling Act that gives Chancellor Hitler dictatorial powers has been passed.

Realising that Jews are no longer safe, Gerhard Schliemann, a medical professor in Frankfurt, sends a note to his wife Elsa, urging her to flee immediately with their two young children, Peter and Susie, to Zurich — where Elsa’s parents accommodate them.

The next task for Gerhard is to find a job outside Germany. Given his Jewish ancestry and the prevailing political climate in Europe, this proves impossible. To fill time, he works in an employment agency for scientists who share his predicament and writes on their behalf to universities far and wide.

On hearing that the Turkish government is keen on educational reforms and the founding of a modern university adhering to European standards, he travels to Istanbul and Ankara, where he convinces the education ministry to hire him, as well as 30 other German Jewish professors and scientists, as faculty.

The rest of the book, dropping to a more sedate pace, is about the joys and hardships that come to the Schliemann family with adapting to life in Turkey where they make Istanbul their home. By and by, they receive Turkish identity cards where the family name is transcribed as Siliman.

While Elsa continues to think of herself as German and prefers the company of German expatriates, her young daughter Susie, starting life in a Turkish primary school, calls herself “a daughter of Ataturk” and forms deep friendships with the Muslim and Armenian neighbours in her apartment block. A positive point about the novel is that Istanbul itself becomes a character in the story. Indeed, it is in bringing alive the sounds, sights and flavours of this generous, easy-going city that the author excels.

While the prose style is simple, what is less attractive to the reader is the patchy storyline that follows the lives of four generation of Siliman women. From Elsa the narrative shifts to her daughter Susie. When given the choice, after the war is over, of reclaiming her German citizenship, she, unlike her brother Peter, decides on Turkish citizenship.

Suzie’s childhood friendship with a Muslim boy develops into a teenage crush. She later marries him and has a daughter, Sude, who, as a child of mixed ancestry, develops an identity crisis of her own. She resolves it by becoming a free spirit and has a child out of wedlock, the girl Esra.

Gradually, the idea of a German or even a Jewish identity fades. Meanwhile in the backdrop, the main events of recent Turkish history play out. As the newly formed democracy finds its feet, Kemal Ataturk dies, military coups follow, there is civil and political unrest.

The hope on which the Silimans built their lives in Turkey is undermined again. It is not only the migrant family that is challenged by questions of identity but the Turkish state as well. While historical accuracy is undoubted, cramming 80 years of events clogs the story’s movement and leaves little room for developing its characters.

Thus, for readers unfamiliar with Turkey’s history, the key question of a story — what happens next? — falls by the wayside.

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