Book review: Bachtyar Ali′s ″Der letzte Granatapfel″

Buried treasure

The first German translation of a Kurdish-Iraqi novel has been published – and what a novel! Bachtyar Ali′s ″Der letzte Granatapfel″ is a bombshell. Stefan Weidner read the book

The Iraqi Kurds are fighting on the front against IS, but Kurdistan has more to offer than Peshmerga fighters. Ask people in Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, the two competing cities of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, about literature and writers and you′ll get plenty of names – but one will repeat itself: Bachtyar Ali. Beautifully bound and compiled into a handsome box set, eleven novels by this highly productive storyteller and essayist are stocked in all local bookshops and apparently sell so well that the writer can live off the proceeds – in Germany. Ali, born in 1960, speaks German alongside his native language of Sorani, the southern of the two Kurdish dialects, plus Persian, Arabic and English.

Better late than never, the Zurich-based publishing house Unionsverlag has now brought out Ali′s 2003 novel ″Duwahamin Henari Dunya″ (The Last Pomegranate) in German translation. The book is a bombshell, one of the most involving texts from the Oriental region made available for a long time. It makes instantly clear why the writer has such cult status in his home country.

The story of a search

The novel starts with a release. After more than twenty years′ solitary confinement in a desert prison, the former Peshmerga fighter Muzaferi Subhdam is taken to the palace of his one-time friend, the victorious revolutionary leader Jakobi Snauber. Internally, Muzaferi has long since turned his back on the world. Yet he is obsessed with the idea of finding his son Saryasi, whom he left behind as a baby. ″Der letzte Granatapfel″ tells the story of this search.

It develops into a nightmarish odyssey through recent Kurdish history, beginning with the 1980s uprisings against Saddam Hussein, which the dictator stifled using poison gas and extending to the inner-Kurdish civil war in the wake of autonomy in the 1990s. Yet ″Der letzte Granatapfel″ is not historical fiction. It is not about the history as such, but about the question of what it does to people and how they can bear it, if at all.

The re-enchantment of the world

The book is a literary reaction to these questions. Unlike many Middle Eastern writers, Bachtyar Ali never aestheticises violence and suffering, never uses them as a literary device, for voyeurism or a fast thrill. And where a character tends towards cynicism, for instance the revolutionary leader Jakobi Snauber, for whose sake Muzaferi went into prison, that cynicism is simply exposed to the power of Muzaferi′s humanity.

Cover of Bachtyar Ali′s ″Der letzte Granatapfel″ (photo: Unionsverlag)
No glorification of violence: ″unlike many Middle Eastern writers, Bachtyar Ali never aestheticises violence and suffering, never uses them as a literary device, for voyeurism or a fast thrill. There is a mysticism not only shapes Ali′s characters, but also influences his entire way of writing, down to the depths of his style. Before one knows it, one is unwittingly witnessing the re-enchantment of the world from its deepest, darkest point,″ writes Weidner

When Snauber claims at the end of the novel that there is only one purity, "never to allow that people understand people," Muzaferi′s response is: "Do you want to philosophise about the last things like all other rulers and prophets and ban us tiny human beings from your mind? You live to forget them, but I live to remind myself of them."

Before one knows it, one is unwittingly witnessing the re-enchantment of the world from its deepest, darkest point.

The lost children of a dark era

Muzaferi Subhdam′s search for his son grows into a search for multiple sons.

There are three children of the same age with the same name and all of them were once given a glass pomegranate as they lay in their cradles. Their stories stand for the lost, fatherless children of that dark era in Kurdish history.

While one boy earns respect as a Robin Hood of the street hawkers hassled by the police, the second proves to be a child soldier robbed of his soul, constantly seeking death in vain on the battlefield.

When Muzaferi exchanges recorded tape messages with this second Saryasi, himself now in solitary confinement, it becomes a minor matter which boy is really his son; the only remaining goal of his search is atonement.

And when we are led through a home for war-damaged children by a boy known as "Black Star" because of his burns, to the third and last of the Saryasis, the scene is as horrific as it is touching. What makes it bearable is that Muzaferi himself does not doubt in his mission for a second, even in the midst of this cabinet of horrors.

"When I took the exhausted, melted and mentally absent boy into my arms, I felt as though something deep inside me began to shine out. I realised that a great oath was needed here. A promise greater than fatherhood, love and pity."

Mystical pan-humanism

Without doubt, this kind of literature owes a great deal to magic realism. But it is a magic realism of the Orient, springing from older sources than Latin American writing. The book thrives on a mysticism of internal existence, its core being our dependence on other people. That mysticism not only shapes Ali′s characters, but also influences his entire way of writing, down to the depths of his style. At one point, this mystical pan-humanism is summed up as follows: "Just as a part of our life is mixed with all the other lives, a part of all other lives is contained within ours, a part of our death in the death of all others."

As the narrative situation is revealed in the course of the novel and it becomes clear that Muzaferi Subhdam is telling his story to his fellow refugees on a boat on the Mediterranean, the thirteen-year-old book achieves an eerie connect with the present day.

The logic of utopia

In a profound essay for the Goethe Institut about current experiences of flight and migration, Bachtyar Ali recently wrote something we can assume describe motives for both flight and writing itself: "For the refugee, it is not a matter of experiencing justice in the elementary political sense; that is, escaping from state despotism or immediate danger zones. Instead, the actual goal of the flight is to break out of the sphere of horror. Fleeing is a mythical, imaginary process subject to the logic of utopia and not the logic of bare rational thought."

How could such a book, such a writer go undiscovered for the German book market for so long? One reason is no doubt that very few native speakers of German understand Sorani well, making it hard to find literary translators for the language combination. Bearing in mind that they were breaking new ground, the team of translators and their editor have done a good job of a difficult task. The other, perhaps more important reason, however, may be that Bachtyar Ali, although a star in Iraqi Kurdistan, is not a writer with an interest in fame. He is a highly concentrated man, almost shy, who prefers to sit at home and write than to seek out the limelight. Nevertheless, we will hear and read a great deal more from him in future.

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Bachtyar Ali: ″Der letzte Granatapfel″. Translated from Sorani to German by Ute Cantera-Lang and Rawezh Salim, Unionsverlag, Zurich 2016.

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