Interview with author Dogan Akhanli

"The tradition of looking the other way"

Published in German, Dogan Akhanli's novel "Madonna's Last Dream" pays homage to Sabahattin Ali’s classic "Madonna in a Fur Coat" – as well as being a narration of the crimes of the 20th century from the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust through to the refugee stories of our time. Gerrit Wustmann spoke to the Cologne-based author

Do you remember the first time you read Sabahattin Ali’s novel "Madonna in a Fur Coat"?

Dogan Akhanli: I was still very young. Upon first reading, it was a charming and tragic love story. The second time, about 20 years ago, I wondered why Ali had chosen a Jewish woman in Berlin as the central character. I was very interested in the National Socialist era and the Holocaust at the time and wondered whether the Nazis would have allowed this woman, Maria Puder, to die giving birth to her child, or in other words to live so long at all – and how differently things might have turned out.

Your novel Madonna’s Last Dream begins with the words "Maria Puder didn’t die like that"

Akhanli: I wanted to explore this question and found it interesting to make Sabahattin Ali a protagonist of my book. He was murdered on the Bulgarian border as he fled Turkey. Everything points to it being a state-sponsored murder. I wanted to connect this murder story with his work. At the same time, I could establish a link between the history of both nations, Turkey and Germany.

And there’s another protagonist, a Turkish-heritage writer living in Cologne. Is that a play on your own biography?

Akhanli: Yes, and also on the question of what a real author looks like as a fictional figure. Sabahattin Ali is real, Maria Puder is a fiction and the Turkish writer from Cologne appears to be modelled on someone real. In the end it all goes haywire, even the first-person narrator becomes a fiction and it’s left to the reader to decide: What is real, and what is fiction?

And all the while, the background to the novel is historical reality: the story of the genocides of the 20th century. The focal point is the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, later also the Solingen attack and today’s refugee experiences. Issues that crop up in many of your books…

Cover of Dogan Akhanli's "Madonnas letzter Traum" – Madonna's Last Dream (published in German by sujet)
"No writer is able to relate the horror of the Holocaust in its entirety, but you can relate individual events such as these, which show how humanity failed back then; how supposedly neutral countries like Turkey left the Jewish refugees in the lurch. Nazi Germany wasn’t the only perpetrator. There were many co-perpetrators," says Akhanli

Akhanli: For me, this mass murder, this colossal violence, is something that has affected the world far beyond the nations involved. I don’t see the Holocaust as a German-Jewish story, but as something transnational. In the case of the Holocaust, there is no innocence.

A symbol of this is the ship Struma, sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Bosphorus with almost 800 Jewish refugees on board, in your book Maria Puder is one of them – why this event in particular as the alternative fate for Sabahattin Ali’s character?

Akhanli: The fate of the Struma represents a compressed image of the Holocaust. No writer is able to relate the horror of the Holocaust in its entirety, but you can relate individual events such as these, which show how humanity failed back then; how supposedly neutral countries like Turkey left the Jewish refugees in the lurch. Nazi Germany wasn’t the only perpetrator. There were many co-perpetrators.

What exactly was Turkey’s approach? On the one hand, the nation gave refuge to many Jewish academics and intellectuals, on the other those on board the Struma were left to fend for themselves. How does that sit together?

Akhanli: Turkey remained neutral until shortly before the end of the war. Although the government at the time was despotic, this should be recognised as an achievement. But Turkey remained ambivalent towards the Jews. Those deemed to be useful were allowed into the country. On the other hand, there were pogroms against its own Jewish citizens in the 1930s. Until the end of the Second World War, four fifths of Turkish Jews had left the country. And for the European Jews, sailing via the Bosphorus to Palestine was the only escape route. Turkey allowed many ships to pass. Others were prevented from doing so. Three or four refugee boats were sunk during this time, one of them was the Struma.

Madonna’s Last Dream was published in 2005 in Turkey and has won several prizes. Was its reception controversial, or did people welcome the fact that you were writing so openly on these subjects?

Akhanli: I think people there were relieved that the book doesn’t cast Turkey as the main perpetrator. Most critics simply ignored the fact that I implied a connection between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. They behaved as though it was only about German guilt. The book received literary praise and politically, little has been said about it.

Would it be more difficult today than 14 years ago to publish such a book in Turkey?

Akhanli: It probably wouldn’t be more difficult. It depends more on the writer than the book, as we see in the case of Ahmet Altan. His latest book I Will Never See the World Again with essays written in prison, has never been published in Turkey. That’s indicative of the climate there. But books are rarely banned. They’d rather send the writers to jail.

You are also persecuted by the Turkish government: you were de-naturalised, but then arrested on a Turkish warrant in Spain in 2017…

Akhanli: … while my books are freely available in Turkey. There’s no ban.

Ahmet Altan, one of Turkey’s most influential intellectual voices, spent three-and-a-half years in prison, was suddenly set free and then re-arrested a week later. What’s the explanation for this?

Akhanli: That’s an abhorrent and cruel attack on a human being. I think the government wants to send a message to the general public: we can treat people however we choose. They are showing that they don’t care one bit about Europe or the rule of law. Europe needs to realise what kind of people it is dealing with here. If other nations continue to remain silent, as they are doing over the attack on the Syrian Kurds, then we have all lost. The more outrageous Erdogan’s behaviour, the more reticent the Europeans become.

How should Europe, how should Germany react?

Akhanli: The German people know what’s happening in Turkey, the media keep them well-informed. The problems come from the political sphere, which remains traditional and quiet. That’s nothing new. It’s the tradition of looking the other way. New economic or other reasons are repeatedly found to justify reticence in dealings with Turkey. But Germany is in a very strong position with the potential for negotiation. If it wanted, it could send Turkey warning signals. But that’s not happening. I can’t understand it.

Gerrit Wustmann

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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