I first met Olga Grjasnowa in 2015, when I was a translator-in-residence at the Crossing Border Festival in The Hague. I was fortunate enough to translate a sample from her second novel Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe (‘The Legal Haziness of a Marriage’). I had also enjoyed her debut, All Russians Love Birch Trees, translated by Eva Bacon (Other Press, 2014), and when Katy Derbyshire recommended City of Jasmine (originally entitled Gott ist nicht schüchtern, or ‘God Is Not Shy’) I was eager to read it myself.
City of Jasmine is now available in English, wonderfully translated by Katy herself. It tells the story of three young Syrians: Hammoudi is a newly qualified doctor who has returned to Damascus from France to renew his passport, while Amal and Youssef are finding their feet as an actress and director, respectively. They have their whole lives ahead of them, until they begin resisting the ever-tightening grip of the Assad regime. As life in the city becomes increasingly dangerous, they realise there is only one way to survive – by turning their backs on their beloved homeland, making the treacherous crossing to Europe and beginning a new life.
City of Jasmine is an incredibly moving and topical story. Its impact is strengthened by Grjasnowa’s unsentimental prose, which does not allow the reader to become distracted from the issues at the heart of the novel. The use of the present tense transforms the reader into an eyewitness, seeing the reality of war-torn Damascus through the protagonists’ eyes. Hammoudi, whose passport has been seized, begins working as an undercover doctor, treating wounded resistance fighters. He is horrified by what he sees and is struck by the stark contrast between Damascus and Paris:
‘The park becomes a graveyard. No one is buried according to Sunni, Coptic, Circassian or Armenian custom now. Instead, corpses and body parts are interred under cover of darkness. Hammoudi has vague memories of cemeteries in Paris that looked like parks, but a park turned into a cemetery has something monstrous about it, he thinks.’
As well as being a superb writer and storyteller, Olga Grjasnowa has a personal connection that makes this a very important novel for her. Her husband is Syrian, and Grjasnowa did a great deal of research for this novel, visiting refugees in camps and listening to their stories and experiences. Grjasnowa herself moved to Germany from Azerbaijan as a child; arriving with only a handful of German words, she is now a highly successful author with three novels and several prizes to her name. In each of her novels, Olga Grjasnowa shines a light on a particular period of contemporary history, bringing different cities – from Moscow to Baku, Tbilisi and Berlin – to life. And in City of Jasmine, through cultural references, astute observations and mesmerising details, she takes her readers on a heart-breaking journey along the streets of war-torn Damascus and on to Europe, where so many have fled in search of safety, care, and above all, hope.
Reviewed by Alyson Coombes
CITY OF JASMINE
Written by Olga Grjasnowa
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Published by Oneworld Publications (March 2019)
Alyson Coombes is a freelance translator, editor and book blogger (fromcovertocover.co.uk). Her co-translation Eichmann’s Executioner by Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler was published in 2017 by The New Press. She works with New Books in German, 12 Swiss Books and other initiatives to help find and promote the best contemporary German-language fiction in the UK.