I am in love. Firstly, I’m in love with Alia, then with Uncle Cemal and later with Anton; I’m in love with Istanbul anyway, and I’m in love with Sasha Marianna Salzmann’s language – with individual sentences, and I’m in love with everyone plus everything that, taken together, results in more than a story. I’m not somebody who falls in love quickly. My job also calls for me to be a critical reader. Yet, you can only read this novel with a pounding heart.
You don’t know exactly where to begin an account of Sasha Marianna Salzmann’s debut novel – you’re uncertain about which story, which country or which family branch. Perhaps, this is exactly the question that the writer poses in the whirlpool of her stories: where we begin, and how we become who we are, while we desperately seek not to become what our parents and grandparents once were. We exist, but we exist because, – and ‘because’ is writ large and much larger than sometimes we want to believe. ‘Because’ constitutes our ancestors, our families who lived, suffered, loved, argued, feared, laughed and had feelings. ‘Because’ is the thing that we process every day; either we permanently confront it or we try to distance ourselves from it. Yet, we fail to achieve a balance, simply: ‘because’.
Ali and Anton, the twins who fall rather than stand at the centre of this novel, arrive in Germany from the Soviet Union as children along with their half-Jewish family. Incidentally, the writer also did so. This is only worth mentioning because she so fluently and self-confidently weaves insights about this country into her novel – the real place, and the place that consists of ideas and suggestions. They arrive as children and grow up in a broken family, in dysfunctional circumstances, and personally broken, for even as children in the playground they are bullied by other children. One day, the breakdown is so great that Anton disappears and only sends an empty postcard from Istanbul. (The reader doesn’t know why exactly this happens, now when things have never seemed so good.) So, Ali sets off to search for her brother in this pulsating, dazzling metropolis where she only knows one person: Uncle Cemal, the uncle of her flat mate. The novel begins here. But the unique thing about this story is that it could easily end here as well. Otherwise, this could be the middle, as Ali lies on the bedbug-infested sofa at Uncle Cemal’s and Cay drinks; as they aimlessly walk through the streets; how she meets Katho and maybe falls in love with him/her and maybe not. This can all be immensely significant, or only a fleeting moment to confirm how life passes.
While Ali roams the filthy, noisy streets of Istanbul, which are bursting with life, her thoughts and memories – that cannot be such, for she never experienced any of this – scroll through stories of her family, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Who met whom and how; why did they fall in love and mostly not in love; and how they survived the war and life. You could complain that in one of these stories something must happen to the protagonist, so that he remembers his roots, and somebody who delves into his past to find himself today. Maybe, and maybe not. Sasha Marianna Salzmann has the gift of conjuring up worlds that are plausible in their own right: Ali’s life in Berlin and her non-life in Istanbul; the twins in the Soviet Union, their parents on the outskirts of Moscow, Katho in the Ukraine and so on, so that you forget these stories are part of something. You are so immersed in the places, decades and feelings that it appears as if Sasha Marianna Salzmann were gifting the reader several books rolled into one: each time that the novel switches between the different family branches, at the pit of your stomach there is this faint, yet wonderful disappointment of a great reading experience: what – already over?
The author address important societal questions with a naturalness so that you can only find the intricate debates about them ridiculous. Ali is a girl, Anton is a boy – that’s how it begins. The two characters are pushed into the world and when the novel ends – the novel, though not its story – Ali is possibly a man. This is another strength of the novel: you can ‘let be’ such ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ episodes.
Sasha Marianna Salzmann’s language is like a whirlpool – she lines up sentences and sub-clauses together, yet without ever losing her breath. Perhaps this is because she gives every detail, every feeling its space, its image and its own description: nothing about this novel is spit out, nothing is forced; this is an art that only a few authors can master. (But as mentioned, I’m also in love … .) On the other hand, she grasps some things so clearly and directly in words that it is painful for a while. For example, when Ali’s mother asks her disgusted daughter whom she finally sees again after months, what they should talk about, and Ali doesn’t answer, but reflects: “About the need for human closeness and what you should do with it. About discoloured teeth because of cigarettes and black tea; about why you still haven’t moved out of this museum here; do you need this dreariness, instead of buying new furniture and putting it over old burn holes; burn everything and give away my clothes to the Red Cross; move to a different city; move in with me – no, please don’t move in with me, but don’t move too far away either; search for your son with me, but don’t talk about it.”
Sasha Marianna Salzmann has written a novel that is like its title: “Außer sich” (“beside itself”). The language drives the reader, as though breathless; the author strings together sentences, themes, stories, people, centuries, as though they were ‘beside themselves’. She jumps in and retreats again – into feelings, thought chains as well as the big questions, but she keeps the necessary distance to it all that she needs to avoid clichés or pity. Simply, ‘beside itself’.
By Lena Gorelik
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright