Our German fairytaleReality, crueller than fiction
Fairytales are beautiful. Fairytales are horrifying. Both things can also be said of Dincer Gucyeter‘s debut novel Unser Deutschlandmaerchen. An episodic, autobiographical tale, an autofictional family history, an ambitious game with narrative form that isn’t afraid to punctuate the polyphonic text with poems and scenic passages, photos and dream monologues. This is both a story of immigration and of the making of an artist, a deeply feminist but above all brutally open and unsparing book.
"And so I gradually began to understand: where people came together, all civilisation, all justice ended. Everyone is fighting for their own position of power," the last chapter tells us, and that may well be true, if we’re honest about it: in politics and business, at work and in the family, in the theatre scene no less than on the production line. Gucyeter’s book covers all these milieus – and so much more.
Born in 1979, Dincer Gucyeter started an apprenticeship as a lathe operator at sixteen. Today he is a writer, poet, actor, theatre-maker, editor, publisher, and part-time forklift driver.
This year he was awarded the Peter Huchel Prize for his poetry and is every bit the alternative programme to the German academic cultural scene, allowing him to reflect without mercy what he finds there – see the passage quoted above, which may appear in a different context in the book, but is no less applicable here.
It is about searching for your true self, and about shark pools; the cruelty of life and its beauty, too.
Fatma keeps the family together
Gucyeter’s parents came to Germany in the 1960s. Their marriage was not founded on love, and their migration was founded on the hope of having a better life than their parents – only to face the sobering realisation of how they were seen in Germany, a view expressed all too clearly in the term "guest workers".
The novel is largely narrated by three voices: Dincer, his mother Fatma and, at the start, his grandmother Hanife, who remains in her Anatolian village, while her daughter and son-in-law Yilmaz go to Nettetal (where their son, the author, still lives).
From practically their first day there it is Fatma who keeps the family together, while what her husband brings to their new life is a big mouth but little else. She suddenly finds herself saddled with the debts he has incurred, and things don’t get much better when he opens a bar.
You soon get an inkling of why the father has no voice in the narrative. He lends money that he never gets back, his customers help themselves from the fridge, and he is just too good-natured to suit the role of businessman.
Meanwhile, Fatma slaves away in the factory and in the fields, providing not only for her own family but for the children of relatives. After the military coup in Turkey, she takes in refugees, the house is full, and after a few years, her body refuses to comply.
She falls ill. Gets up. Carries on. Takes care of young women who have run away from home and ended up in the clutches of pimps, and brings them back to their parents: "The mothers soften at once and want to take their children back; with the fathers and brothers, it’s more difficult. These men, who run drooling after every woman at every opportunity, are firmly convinced that the family honour has to come first, these idiots!"
Reading books rather than playing football
But isn't it the same everywhere? This mother, who makes such a superhuman effort, has no idea what to make of her son's literary and artistic ambitions; she is demoralised by his reading books instead of playing football. He needs to work, to become a worker who earns money with his hands, and so she insists on the apprenticeship, will brook no objections. Dincer doesn’t have an easy time in this raw, calloused world.
While his colleagues brag about their sexual exploits during the lunch break, he retreats to the factory floor and reads Dostoyevsky. When he weeps over a slaughtered lamb during a holiday in Turkey, it’s the last straw for Fatma: she believes she's failed in her attempt to make a man of her son.
And then: Molln, Solingen. The NSU. Being uprooted after decades of hard work, trying to build a life, to make a home, the constant fear of the far-right murderers, those revenants from the dustbin of history, whom the German state did little to tackle – and, as we now know, the deadbeats from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution least of all. Fairytales may be horrifying, but they just can’t keep pace with reality.
This makes it sound like a heavy, depressing book – and it is, it has to be; these are the realities that the majority in German society finally have to face up to, realities they can’t duck away from for a single day longer. That's one side.
Follow your dream
But of course, there is the other side, too: an eighties working-class childhood; summers in Anatolia; the first trip to Istanbul; the boundless curiosity of the young writer searching for his own language and voice, and his determination to follow his dream and show his mother that there are more worlds than just this one, and if you don't believe in me, then I'll have to believe in myself!
Unexpectedly, it is a district court judge who not only helps the Gucyeters out of the debt trap with his support, but also discovers Dincer’s talent, supplies him with books and eventually organises his first reading, which according to the local press is far more authentic and interesting than all the Walsers who usually take the stage.
"A person knows what he can take," Fatma’s voice says in the book, "Giving is the dignity of a refined soul. Where this is lacking, where a person stands as a debtor, he can spread ill-will shamelessly, without conscience." She says this in reaction to the neo-Nazi terrorism that followed Germany's reunification.
And is horrified when, twenty years later, she has to walk past election posters for far-right politicians in her neighbourhood. Reading this, you feel just as ashamed as this wife and mother, who also stands for so many others whose life’s work finally needs to be appreciated. Who need to be seen.
Dincer Gucyeter makes them visible in this debut novel, at times a quiet, tender, sensitive book, but often also angry, hurtful and rebellious – a virtuoso linguistic artwork that you can't put down. Joerg Fauser once said: "The poet is a rag and bone man". You’re reminded of this when Dincer Gucyeter writes: "I am still searching for my own language; what I have found, I put out on the pavement like oversized rubbish, and go out again, into the streets, through the night, looking for something new..."
© Qantara.de 2022
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin