Turkish-German Writer Makes Language Come Alive
Twelve Grams of Happiness: at first it seems so very little, and yet from even this small portion come twelve wonderful stories about love – about love found and failed, and love in its different forms and varying life span. For at the heart of the twelve stories in Feridun Zaimoglu's latest book Twelve Grams of Happiness lies a quiet kind of happiness, so transient, slight and difficult to capture, but yet, once found, so very great.
The first seven stories are located in 'this world': the following five in 'the world beyond' – although this is more a spatial than a transcendental divide.
The stories in the first part of the book unfold in the day-to-day world of big German cities such as Hamburg and Berlin: those of the second part take place in largely rural, archaic-seeming settings in unnamed places in Anatolia – Zaimoglu's homeland until his parents emigrated to Germany over thirty years ago.
East may be West, West may be East
Yet within the stories themselves there is no such clear-cut division between this world and the world beyond, between Occident and Orient.
In fact neither the modern, capitalist world of the West nor the elemental world of the East, steeped in tradition and bound by rite and religion, seems able to offer redemption.
Nor do the characters that populate the stories fit comfortably into one world or the other: instead they serve to unsettle the opposition that the two-part structure of the book seems at first to create.
Confusion in the closed world of tradition
Many of the stories from 'this world' are centred on Turkish immigrants, while the stories from the 'world beyond' are about the arrival of Western intruders, 'outsiders' who bring confusion to the closed world of religious tradition and fixed social structure.
The characters are all in search of happiness: people in pursuit of love and life, chasing moments of fulfilment. Their only difference is in the places and ways in which they seek it, whether in religious asceticism, in violent fantasies, in sex or in the fateful encounter between two kindred souls.
The narrator never seems entirely at home in either of the worlds on each side of the division, and it is his alien and alienating gaze that draws the reader into the stories and gives them their intensity and elemental force.
Zaimoglu combines meticulously detailed observation with unusual images that refocus the gaze, creating a picture of our world today that is amusing and entertaining, unsettling and disturbing, and yet ultimately and always entirely recognisable.
He writes of people seeking religious salvation and of Muslim women clad in veils; but also of women who have been raped, artists unable to follow their calling and desperate people saved from suicide.
'Invocation of God I'
But it is love that remains at the core of the stories – and love is a curious game that sometimes needs a helping hand, as demonstrated amusingly in 'Invocation of God I'.
Set in the German-Turkish milieu of Kreuzberg, the story is recounted by a man unwillingly recruited as a reluctant ghost-writer of love letters – writing for a woman who strings her men along.
But love can also be a commodity, as in the final story 'A Labour of Love'. In a shabby tourist haunt a rent boy offers himself to a German holiday-maker. She turns him away, but goes in search of him that evening.
Yet it isn't sex she is after. She has trouble sleeping, she says, and wants him to tell her a story. This is the labour of love for which she pays him against his will, and the tale that he tells her that night is an unhappy love story, a story surprisingly similar to her own, although she does not see it…
Fittingly it is with this self-reflexive twist that the book concludes, a book that itself possesses the power to create illusions, dissolving the barrier between reality and fiction and leading the reader into a world that is oddly familiar yet strange.
Like Zaimoglu's earlier books, Twelve Grams of Happiness is marked by the sensuality of its language
that allows the worlds and characters it describes to come alive – at times violently and with an onslaught of words, at others gently and tentatively.
And so these twelve stories come together in a unique melody of language and narrative rhythm that continues to echo long after the stories are over. A moment of happiness, literarily.
© Litrix.de 2004
Translation from German by Sally-Ann Spencer