The ingredients are all so promising. First, the story of a German-Jewish family escaping Nazi persecution and running away to Istanbul where the pater familias gets a job and starts a life with his wife and two children. Then, the description of how the two children try to integrate, one more influenced by Turkish identity than the other, and how they will themselves have children and so on, covering the lives of four generations from 1933 until today.
The set-up would appear wonderful, and in a way so important and so contemporary. A historical journey approaching the themes of migration, religious discrimination, conflicts and reconciliation. The topic of exploring identity associated with nationalism is so poignant right now. Who are we, really? How does it happen that we identify with traditions, languages and customs of the country we grew up in, at times uprooting the mindset of our parents? What has been the role of nationalism, in the last 100 years, in impacting what we think we are? What is the relationship between religion and nationalism in Asia? And then a gaze at the languid feeling of belonging, or trying to belong to, the magnetic call of a homeland, the complicated meaning of family…
Unfortunately, all these themes, and the great plot idea, are poorly delivered in Without a Country by
Ayşe Kulin, who in 2011 was considered by Forbes magazine to be Turkey’s most influential writer. Kulin is a very accomplished storyteller who has sold 10 million copies of her books. But fans might be disappointed with this one, which, originally published in 2016, has been brought out in paperback for the first time in India now.
Kulin’s narrative is fatally distracted by her need to share historical information by integrating encyclopaedic facts in clanky dialogue. It’s a shame and a beginner’s mistake, which is puzzling to justify in someone who has published successfully and in such volumes.
Some prolific novelists can fall in the tendency to produce too many books in impractically short periods of time, which could lead to sloppiness. And, of course, there’s also the possibility of a translation problem, as the transition from Turkish to English is famously a challenging one. However, some Turkish readers’ reactions seem to confirm discomfort with the lack of depth in characters and the superficial approach to a story that, in the synopsis, offers so many possibilities.
The primary problem with this novel is the need to share too much research, awkwardly intertwined in the story. Readers are constantly being taught a lesson in history, which derails the emotional attachments to the characters. The pages are constellated with sentences like: “As of today, Hitler has the power to make laws without passing them through Parliament. March 24 will go down in history as the day German democracy died” or “‘Göring has founded a special Nazi force — they call it the Gestapo,’ Gerhard added.” Wikipedia diluted in verbose dialogue.
To further engulf the flow there are, interspersed, occasional banal commentaries such as: “It is also an indication of the depravity to which a despot can drive his countrymen, Gerhard.” I could go on, but I think you get the point.
This is a very “told” book, not a “shown” book, breaking one of the most elementary rules of editing. The author’s stylistic choice leaves room for very little subtleties, abandoning the reader to a frequent exposition of constant self-evaluation and inner chatter explaining, again and again, what the book is about, instead of allowing the narrative to show readers what it is about.
Too many characters
Kulin has also opted for the ‘long letter gimmick,’ deciding to transfer the telling of the plot to the intermittent epistolary form. It’s a tiring and rhythm-killer of a choice, if you add it to the characters’ dialogues, which are mostly about the current events of the time. Lamentably, even intimate dialogue acquires a tinge of vapidity.
Detail, colour and flavour often get lost in Kulin’s need to squeeze too many characters into few pages, making it hard to believe and care about the people for whom we should feel something. And once you get to the second half of the book, all of a sudden there’s a feeling of hurry. The multi-generational saga of Without a Country covers a wide span of time and the lives of four generations, but the plot doesn’t hold to the test.
There are some happy turns of phrases and a few pages worth salvaging, especially when Kulin describes action, like riots, coups or political unrest. The best scene in a disappointing book is a very cinematically rendered uprising in Taksim Square which allows Suzi, daughter of Gerhard and Elsa, who Turkeyfied her German last name from “Schliemann” to “Siliman,” to finally embrace and kiss her childhood sweetheart, who very predictably becomes her husband. If the entire Without a Country , which often feels like a soap opera imbued with melodrama, had been told with such tempo and inspiration, it would’ve crafted it into a really worthwhile read.
The writer is an author and professor of communication theory. His most recent book is Mappillai: An Italian son-in-law in India.
Without a Country; Ayşe Kulin, trs Kenneth Dakan, Westland, ₹399