September 2011

Christopher Merkel


A German Summer

Summer never came to Portland, Oregon this year. And that wasn't particularly surprising, given last year's paltry showing, but when the longest Portland winter in personal memory failed to give way to spring, and when the morning clouds lingered past midday on most days -- even past the fourth of July, popularly considered the first day of summer in the Pacific Northwest -- it was nonetheless disappointing. I won't win any sympathy with American readers anywhere off of the West Coast by saying that the hazy mornings felt like May and the cool, dry evenings like October all season long; but that's how it was, and the noncommittal mildness wasn't any less aggravating for knowing about the extremes being suffered in other parts of the States.

In Portland, we all pretended and dressed for summer anyway, and I was sure that I could keep up the rigor of my reading schedule despite my flagging spirits. I had almost come to a decision between the book about anxious, melancholic love set in the Bucharest art world of the early 1930s and the one set in interwar Yugoslavia when I made the decision to give myself a break. Not that either of the two titles I'd been considering seemed lacking in inspiration (either in and of themselves or as a subject for writing on literary translation). Unfortunately, both of them seemed unquestionably heavy, and that wouldn't at all have been conducive to lifting the weight of the clouds. There's a joke that Portlanders like to tell about themselves (and the thriving craft beer industry) to the effect that we drink to get through the winters and then drink all summer to celebrate. There wouldn't be much cause for celebration this year, but at least we'd be able to keep our drinks in our hands and continue in our commiseration, which was the spirit in which I serendipitously happened upon a thriller by German author Jakob Arjouni titled More Beer.

Arjouni's narrator and protagonist, the private investigator Kemal Kayankaya, is definitely a drinker. If it's not a beer, it's a pull off of a bottle of Chivas, or black market Russian vodka, or whatever it is he takes or has offered to him during the mostly sordid interactions he has along the trails of his cases. In More Beer, Kayankaya is hired by the defense attorney of four eco-terrorists to find evidence of their innocence against accusations of their murdering the owner of a chemical plant. On the night of the murder, the four very certainly exploded a waste pipe that ran from the plant to a nearby lake, but the involvement of a fifth man still at large has been enough to raise a suspicion of conspiracy among those wary of the German chemical industry's efforts to continue with its (cagey) business as usual.

Kayankaya is based in Frankfurt, but the Böllig chemical factory -- and the deceased Böllig's calculating young widow -- are in a place called Doddelbach (an alternate transliteration of the Dettelbach I found on the map about an hour and a half from Frankfurt?). It's late fall, and if it's not raining, it's damp and overcast in either city. I had no trouble imagining myself in the scene -- and I understood why Kayankaya drinks.

But it's not just the rain that's constantly dogging Kemal Kayankaya. The private investigator is a German Turk. Born in Turkey to Turkish parents, he was taken by his father to Germany as an infant after his mother died in childbirth. His father, as Kayankaya puts it in More Beer, "didn't last very long," and afterward Kayankaya was adopted by a German family. He's a German citizen with a German passport, but his countrymen all too often make it clear that they see him as a Turk. Racism, whether latent or overt, is a constant obstacle for Kayankaya in his efforts to secure and pursue work.

A cohort of the lawyer who hires Kayankaya to investigate the case of the eco-terrorists (she's also a female member of the press and an ostensible member of the political left) tails Kayankaya from Doddelbach back to Frankfurt after his first round of interviews. She runs her car into his after following him onto a dead end road where he plans to confront his tail. "You haven't told me anything about yourself," she tells him, "And you're a Turk. That's a different culture, and we may not be able to communicate... I didn't want any surprises. For instance -- whether you would accept a woman as a co-worker. I mean, that's unusual where you come from, isn't it?" More Beer is set in the second half of the 1980s, but its sardonic criticism of contemporary identity politics is as poignant now as it would have been twenty-five years ago.

More Beer is just one in a long series of Kayankaya thrillers that has been wildly popular in Europe. And the subject of Kayankaya's Turkishness (the refusal of his contemporaries to recognize his Germanness, really) is a consistent theme. Or at least it was throughout the two in the series that I read. Having been both wickedly entertained and enlightened by Kemal Kayankaya in More Beer, I went on to read One Man, One Murder, in which Kayankaya drinks his way through a search for a kidnapped Thai prostitute. That search takes him to the heart of Frankfurt's underbelly, the denizens of which, like Kayankaya, are often living at German society's ethnic fringe. And at that fringe is where the shakiness of (German) national identity is most starkly put into relief: "He or she was merely the ghost of the 'at our expense' notion, never mind the fact that we have lived for centuries at his expense, and that he is trying to go where 'our' pedestrian malls, 'our' air force and 'our' opera houses have been built -- at his expense. He is a 'parasite,' never mind that coffee, rubber heels, and metal ores do not grow in the forests of Bavaria."

And thoughtful considerations like those all made amidst street fights and gunplay and stalemate stare down interviews with crooked cops. Arjouni and Kayankaya hit hard.

In an article in The German Quarterly entitled "Detecting Ethnicity: Jakob Arjouni and the Case of the Missing German Detective Novel," Arlene Teraoka writes that, "In 1987, the German publishing world witnessed a minor miracle: the immensely successful debut of a writer of hardboiled detective fiction... an international genre dominated by American, British, and French writers. In the story of Jakob Arjouni and his Turkish German p.i. [sic]," Teraoka continues, "the 'real' truth has to do with a problem of legitimacy. What makes Arjouni's success intriguing is that it exists where its absence has been so heavily dictated."

And so it also goes for Kayankaya and his private investigator's practice. An ethnic Turk in a position that demands intimate contact with German law enforcement represents quite the performative contradiction to the identity politics of Kayankaya's social context -- even as Kayankaya's outsider status allows him more intimate access to the lives of the outsiders whose cases he investigates. But what makes Kayankaya's unfortunate treatment at the hands of his countrymen intriguing is the welcoming reception his stories as penned by the upstart German author Arjouni have enjoyed amongst non-Germans.

Both More Beer and One Man, One Murder, originally translated into English by Anselm Hollo in the 1990s, have recently become available in the United States as part of Melville House Publishing's Melville International Crime series. Hollo's translations are a welcome eye onto the intricacies of German racial politics, but also stand as important openings onto a heretofore under-recognized corner of an increasingly popular and influential international genre. Kudos to Melville House for finally introducing Arjouni to an American audience.

I'll wholeheartedly admit to my near complete lack of familiarity with the mystery-crime-thriller genre, and so I'm also not ashamed to confess that I don't exactly know what makes a book in that genre "hardboiled." (I suspect though that it has something to do, at least in part, with the rat that's gnawing Kayankaya's mangled arm when he wakes up in a gutter after getting a gruesome beating in More Beer.) And surely there are standards that bring a book to be hardboiled, or at least some kind of internationally recognized modes of expression. Or maybe I'm just naively pigeonholing. I hesitate to use a stock-y phrase like "stock phrases" for fear of sounding like a consummate and condescending jerk toward the genre (and genre fiction in general), but one example in particular from More Beer seemed unmistakable: Kayankaya is going to visit the attorney for the eco-terrorists and finds the door to his office suspiciously ajar. His observation? "It was quiet. A little too quiet." Did that translate literally from German? Does that expression exist "in so many words" (as it were) in other languages too as a result of interactions in the genre internationally? Should I be embarrassed at having found that thought so thrilling? Anyway.

For all of their hardboiled hard hitting, the two Kayankaya thrillers I've so far read still maintain a controlled and careful style that lends seriousness to their more erudite themes. Not that either couldn't succeed on the excitement of crime and mystery alone, but their inclusion of elements of plot and character beyond the apparent demands of the genre made them especially fulfilling to read. Anslem Hollo's English translations are fluid and impressively natural to their subjects and environs, as well as being gingerly paced, sometimes breaking the action of the text mid-page to jump with Kayankaya to a completely different scene a la a cinematic cut. It's no surprise, however, that Hollo should be up for the challenge of balancing the demands of genre with the more general literary elements of More Beer and One Man, One Murder. The Finnish born poet and translator has translated into English works from Finnish, German, Swedish, and French, including Jean Genet's Querelle of Brest, another unique and challenging bit of literary noir.

And my considerations of the nuance of Arjouni's work in his Kayankaya thriller series certainly aren't meant to seem like attempts to save the genre from itself by projecting on it some imaginary soaring ambitions. The only apologies I can make here are for myself. If anything, my pleasant surprise at the depth of More Beer and One Man, One Murder should only speak to my ignorance of the genre and its capacity for entertaining in such style. So in my final considerations, I wonder if it's actually such a shame that summer didn't come to Portland in 2011. Otherwise I might never have been in a position to let myself discover Jakob Arjouni. But then I decide that yes, yes it is, a shame, but misery does love company -- or it hates to drink alone or something -- and I did find an appreciable companion in Kemal Kayankaya. "'What is it you want? First you act as if you didn't give a shit, then you act like a wild man who won't give up on the case, and now you don't give a shit again.'" It's that woman from the press again. "I raised my arms. 'What do I want? I want some beer. More beer! Much more beer!'... I stood there for a while and stared at the rain."