Sherko Fatah: "The Dark Ship"

Man, a Shard in the Sand

Sherko Fatah's new novel tells of a young man who joins holy warriors in Iraq, only to turn his back on them and flee to Germany. But there the past catches up with him. Volker Kaminski reports on the book

When a contemporary German-language novel tells of perilous adventures on the high seas, stowaways hidden in cargo holds or castaways on desert islands, we automatically feel transported into the genre of the historical adventure novel. We are so strongly influenced by the certainty of our own security, our everyday luxuries, and above all the habit of being connected everywhere and at all times, that we can hardly imagine being adrift at sea, defenseless on a fragile raft.

Sherko Fatah's novel "The Dark Ship" focuses on exactly these "inconceivable" things – and yet it is an utterly contemporary novel, set in the immediate present. In clear, confident language with an epic flow, Fatah describes the wanderings of the young Iraqi Kerim whose flight into the west turns into an adventure-filled journey.

The fat boy, son of a Kurdish restaurant owner, initially seems unsuited as the hero of such a daring odyssey. Though he longs for adventure in his rural, remote homeland, the events that are to change his life and ultimately throw him off course intrude only gradually upon his everyday life.

Kerim, the pawn of powerful forces

Like a modern Simplicius, the hero of the first German picaresque, Kerim becomes entangled in the chaos of the war that began flaring up repeatedly in Iraq in the early 1980s. He loses his father, murdered in front of his restaurant one day by the henchmen of the Saddam regime. Shortly thereafter Kerim is kidnapped by "holy warriors" and forced to take part in bloody terrorist attacks. He flees, ending up hidden in the dark cargo hold of a huge freighter, in danger of being discovered and punished at any moment.

Over and over, Kerim becomes the pawn of more powerful forces; even after arriving in Berlin and receiving asylum, he, like Simplicius, is incapable of truly understanding what is happening around him; he is unable to take charge of his life and make something out of it.

"A destiny of these times"

​​Sherko Fatah, whose novel was recently shortlisted for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, uses the material of one small life to give convincing and urgent form to a destiny of these times. At the same time, Fatah is not primarily interested in a critique of the world's wars or the inhuman violence of fundamentalist terrorists.

Kerim is a character who must be understood on his own terms, resembling the "stranger" whom Camus first introduced as a literary type.

Like Camus' Meursault, Kerim is alienated from the people around him, yet bears a fatal responsibility for disastrous events, endangering others – often unintentionally – and acting egotistically. He is a "shard in the sand", as his "teacher", the leader of the holy warriors, describes the modern, "godless" human being. This "shard" is quite capable of injuring passersby, inflicting dangerous wounds.

The search for God and meaning

Kerim, given a secular upbringing in Iraq, increasingly becomes an introverted seeker of God and meaning over the course of the novel, a fragile, lonely person who is "both liberated and scarred", as the novel puts it. Longing for companionship and love, in Berlin Kerim begins a relationship with the student Sonja, who literally saves his life when he falls through the ice of a frozen lake. However, this relationship remains superficial and does not last. Thus it is not surprising that the only stability in Kerim's life is provided, disastrously, by the "teacher" who trains him to become a terrorist in the mountains of Northern Iraq.

​​Over and over again, those experiences appear in flashbacks, a skillful indication of Kerim's inability to free himself from the inhuman ideology that catches up with him for real in Berlin, causing his new life to founder tragically.

The strongest passages are indisputably the adventures on the ship and the raft; here the novel strongly recalls Poe's "Arthur Gordon Pym". Fatah's great strength lies in the precise description of nightmarish moments, the gripping depiction of strange noises or smells below deck, looming dangers; these details are incredibly vivid and indelible, while the Berlin sections pale somewhat by contrast, even if we are kept anxiously guessing to the end as to what will become of Kerim. According to the logic of this implacably serious, gripping and – unfortunately – profoundly sorrowful novel, Kerim ultimately has no chance.

Volker Kaminski

© 2008

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

A Portrait of Sherko Fatah
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