Turkish Literature in Germany

The Failings of Turkish Intellectuals and Writers

With a few exceptions, Turkish literature is virtually unknown in Germany. Uli Rothfuss and Achim Martin Wensien ask whether this is due to the function of literature in Turkey or to the subject matter.

Despite ample freedoms and opportunities to introduce readers to foreign literatures, Turkish literature suffers from a lack of publishers and readers in German-speaking countries and the western world in general.

An exception is the work of authors who have received awards in Germany, such as Yasar Kemal, who was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1997. Other than that, few efforts can be seen to address a broader interest in Turkish literature.

The few Turkish authors here write in German, and no publisher would take on the immense risk and expense of translating and publishing Turkish books out of sheer enthusiasm.

One exception is the "Unionsverlag" in Zurich. With the mystery writer Celil Oker, it has managed against the odds to find a niche with a series of Istanbul mysteries well in the tradition of the urban or regional mysteries which have appealed to readers for years. Their lasting fascination is due to a mixture of oriental ambiance, so exotic for the Central European reader, with exciting plots.

But this hardly explains the existing lack of Turkish-language literature on the market in German-speaking countries. The large Turkish population in Germany offers no guarantee that the original Turkish literature will sell here – even third-generation Turks living in German-speaking countries hardly ever read Turkish literature, and if they do, they do not read it in German translation.

Turkish literature – what is that?

But what is meant by the original Turkish literature? It is a literature "with its own unique aesthetic and its own memory", comprising literary works produced in Turkey or, taking a broader view, in the migration process of Turkish immigrants.

But what is this unique aesthetic and memory, the backbone of all literature which must be integral to Turkish literature as well?

In contrast to classical world literature, in Turkey literature does not perform the function of role model, source of inspiration or object of scholarship.

Here literature almost exclusively performs two crucial functions, which people outside Turkey cannot relate to and are not interested in: it shapes and maintains identity and substitutes for politics to the point of serving as an ideological weapon, always in close interaction with Turkish society.

Since the discourse on modernization began in the 19th century, through the era of Kemal Atatürk and up to the verge of EU accession and the accession debate, these functions have changed very little.

The military as custodian of an intellectual heritage

This mentality was vividly manifested in the years 1960, 1971 and 1980, when the military intervened in Turkish politics, bringing a wave of arrests, restrictions and bans for artists and writers.

A vicious circle: as custodians of the intellectual legacy of Kemal Atatürk and in the name of modernization, the military went too far, and finally these supposed "revolutions" devoured their initiators.

It is scarcely conceivable that artists and writers were still able to live and work free of fear and without prejudice, and that some do to this day. Those who remained and succeeded in this tended to be romanticized, mainly by their literary colleagues.

These kinds of biographies have been virtually stage-managed: if an author lacked literary and aesthetic power, and failed to find an audience, a detour through martyrdom could increase the degree of fame, a phenomenon which both media and publishers' business advisors have put to skillful use.

The results have been catastrophic. Turkey has developed a literature with an almost total lack of self-referential structures. For example, to this day there are few critics who can be taken seriously, and they do not have the moral standards to take authors to task for a lack of objectivity.

Counterexample: Orhan Kemal

One could say that every audience deserves the authors it gets. Turkey has been unable to develop pioneering works of literature and art with a chance at universal validity. Those which have become known were carried by powerful political and ideological interests, rarely by a readership.

One rare counterexample is the author Orhan Kemal, whose work "Cemile", first published in 1952, was reissued in Turkey in October 2004 with a printing run of 110,000 copies. According to his son, it sold out within a month.

In the course of his life (1914-1970) Orhan Kemal suffered both poverty and the slander and criticism of his fellow authors; he countered: "Criticize me and curse me, I have my readers".

Orhan Kemal, not to be confused with the bestselling author Yasar Kemal, is the prototype of a professional writer who did not fulfill what seem to be the two major functions of a Turkish writer: to help shape identity and to serve as a political weapon.

Why isn't he read in Germany? The simple answer: he has barely ever been translated, except in passing in 1979, when his book "Murtaza or the Ordinary Man's Sense of Duty" was published in German translation.

But why hasn't more of this writer's work been translated? Probably because, then as now, he does not fit in with Turkey's literary mainstream, even if readers sometimes receive a book differently than anticipated by the book industry. That is one of the unpredictable aspects of the literary marketplace.

Publishing in German-speaking countries

The most important reasons for Turkish literature's inadequate development and recognition in Western Europe, and above all in German-speaking countries, lie in the Turkish intellectuals' and writers' mode of thought and action, and in their failings. Aesthetically speaking, they have rarely succeeded in presenting appealing and readable subject material.

Of course, this does not mean that what German-speaking readers want from Turkish literature in translation is descriptions of the country and its people.

Readers want the author to convey a broader meaning, that is, they want to learn something about themselves, as readers and human beings, in the picture of humanity the author depicts in his works. Great literature can do this, but contemporary Turkish literature does not live up to this standard, because it has other assumptions about literature's function.

The issue of universally valid literature is not the different mentalities of the Germans, French, English or Turks, or what they, as people, can do better than others, but the way in which they are able to translate their life experience into literature, that is, to tell us how their life experience can set an example for us, the readers.

What makes immigrant literature worth reading?

In Germany a kind of exile literature has emerged, but on the whole it has also failed to master the aesthetic and thematic problems of Turkish literature. What are we, who are we? These questions continue to dominate immigrant literature.

It is plain that the interest in this kind of literature is influenced by political events and the general political climate in Asia and Europe. In other words, its acceptance depends less on aesthetic reasons.

It will be possible to speak of the future of immigrant literature only when it metamorphoses completely into a "literature of arrival". There are many examples in which the main focus is the authors' "concerns" about inner and external developments related to the immigrant experience.

But in the long run literature cannot exist on the basis of "concern", even if it is ultimately true that no emotion can be developed and articulated without "its traces", independent of the nature and quality of these concerns. But concerns alone are not enough.

Above all, the modern tradition of marketing emotions and extorting them from the readers tends to relativize the nature of these concerns. They become interchangeable, and often authors, publishers and the media do not shy away from slipping into bathos or bombast to increase the impact of their emotional marketing.

One would expect immigrant literature to reveal the moving aspects of social concerns, in a community in which the author is able to express him or herself as a foreigner, an outsider. An emotional affinity and homogeneity with the great contemporary issues of society, and thus of the readership, would be a reliable gauge for an immigrant literature that has "arrived".

Uli Rothfuss, Achim Martin Wensien

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

Uli Rothfuss is Professor of Poetics and Applied Cultural Studies, "Internationale Hochschule Calw". Achim Martin Wensien was born and raised in Turkey, studied sociology at the University of Hamburg and works as a freelance writer.

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