Anger about everything
Is it possible, is it allowed? Can a convincing novel emerge when an author has barely gained perspective on current events? When she makes the characters think about Angela Merkel’s refugee policy or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime, and quickly reworks newspaper reports about violent events into scenes for her novel? For Fatma Aydemir (b. 1986), the Berlin-based journalist, apparently, these are not the pivotal questions. In her debut novel, Ellbogen she risks a great deal, attempting to capture an attitude to life that is rather rare in German-speaking contemporary literature. Her protagonist, Hazal, age seventeen at the start of the book, lives with her. Her future is still mapped out in a sketchy way: she participates effectively or poorly in a “vocational preparation course”. She completes a dull compulsory internship in her uncle’s bakery. She hangs around with her friends, drinking vodka and smoking cannabis. After the theft of a lipstick, she crosses the path of a store detective and dreams about becoming the “baby” of Mehmet who is ten years older and lives in Istanbul. She got to know him on Facebook, at a distance which makes it possible to project all sorts of romantic ideas onto this elusive man.
Fatma Aydemir chose a simple narrative path to describe Hazal’s troubled inner life. She follows her heroine’s state of consciousness and her emotional state, generally remaining faithful to her rhythm of speech and doesn’t allow any external commentary. The advantages and disadvantages of this method are obvious: Hazal’s speech and thought should be so authentic, and not obscure her inner conflict with an analytical superstructure. However, it’s just as clear that Ellbogen then risks making Hazal an empty mouthpiece of a generation that is gradually fading away. Incidentally, Wolfgang Herrndorf in Tschick and Stefanie de Velasco in Tigermilch used similar processes.
Hazal and her friends have nothing to lose. They dream of the princes who will liberate them, and they are basically governed by bitter hatred of this society. Hazal’s parental home is paternalistic. Her father, a taxi driver, who doesn’t shy away from beating his daughter, spends as much of his time as possible in a café where the men tell tall tales. The mother spends the evenings with her smartphone in hand or in front of the television, while she lets Hazal serve her tea. The exception in this cosmos is Aunt Semra who is a university graduate, social worker and unthinkably leaves tampons lying around on her dining table.
Hazal is scarcely on the road with her friends when the superficially obedient daughter turns into a fiend who mainly suffers from the fact that she cannot channel her anger. This anger is “so great that it doesn’t fit inside me. It threatens to explode my skin, eating me up from the inside and spitting me out again.” Everything that Hazal experiences in her mundane daily routine can erupt again into waves of fury that emerge in seconds: for example, the sight of saturated people who don’t buy their groceries in budget stores and have “things and people whom they cling onto”. Hazal’s eighteenth birthday is the culmination of all the frustrations. She wants a big party, however, when she and her dolled up friends are banned from entering a trendy club, it’s the last straw. At night they end up in an underground station with a student who is as drunk as they are. There is a skirmish. Finally, it’s Hazal who pushes him onto the tracks where he is killed soon afterwards.
From now onwards Hazal is on the run. In the second part of the novel, she is back in Istanbul, in the seedy apartment of her online lover Mehmet and anxiously scanning the internet for news about the Berlin incident. Istanbul, which Hazal only knew by hearsay, is a strange, stressful world for her. She knows little about the political battles there. Indeed, Hazal cannot even answer the question whether she is a Kurd herself without any doubt. Her “identity problem” therefore remains unresolvable, and even Mehmet quickly loses any charisma that he once showed on the internet.
What should be done with this messed-up biography? Follow the well-meant advice of the aunt who hurried to Istanbul and go to the police? Hazal isn’t sure. Everywhere she only feels the “elbows of those who are stronger than we are”, and “people” attempt to “demolish the others and point a finger at them”. Hazal’s naive, unsatisfactory conclusion is clear, “What difference does it make whether I’m in Turkey or in Germany?” And her anger completely turns into profound resignation, “Not a soul is interested in us, they only see us when we mess things up and then they’re suddenly curious.”
Ellbogen is a novel bursting with topical themes whose effect strangely slackens off in the passages that are set in Turkey. Hazal’s reflections become like dull transfer pictures giving their perspective a superimposed aspect. For instance, like when the city Istanbul shows itself from its “best side” and Hazal appears as an alluring “prostitute” who “in the next moment obviously outmanoeuvres us”. Setting aside the forced images, in many sections Ellbogen is convincing. It reveals the raw face of never-ending anger as a novel that aims to create dismay, yet without degenerating into the genre of shock literature.
By Rainer Moritz
Traslated by Suzanne Kirkbright
by Fatma Aydemir
published by Carl Hanser Verlag (Munich 2017, 272 pages)
This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 27 March 2017.