An attempt to sketch migration and xenophobia falls flat
By Bunty Thoidingjam
Without a Country by Ayse Kulin traces the vicissitudes of a Jewish family in Germany, when Nazi fascism gained momentum in Europe in the 1930s, and then in Turkey when their identities were questioned and anti-Semitism brimmed over. The family flees from Frankfurt to Munich and then heads to Istanbul for sanctuary.
As the story takes off in Frankfurt, Elsa and Gerhard are doing fairly well. The couple, with two children, escapes to Munich where Elsa’s parents live. As the narrative is on a fast-paced tone, I, as a reader, felt swayed by the events rather than getting to know the characters, but I was determined to sit through the novel for the emotional ride.
After all, that horror of Jews’ deportation and the Holocaust that persisted during the Second World War will always be a part of us, be it through any medium.
Sensing danger of being detained, Gerhard leaves Frankfurt in a hurry. The tension between the father-in-law and Gerhard when he reaches Munich is interesting. Right from the time he escapes from Frankfurt after leaving his wife behind, he had to show his capability to him. The father-in-law comes home with a plan of helping all Germans displaced by Nazis to get work in some parts of Europe. As luck would have it, his father-in-law gets wind of a new university coming up in Istanbul which is trying to place the displaced Jews who had been forced to flee Germany.
Then, fuelled by hope, they reach the promised country, which is on the verge of change. Slowly, the country goes through many events and upheavals and some right-wingers slowly turn against German Jews. Here, they again experience hatred and come face to face with xenophobia. The novel also brings out the crucial confusion of the two children in the context of identity, religion and nationality. The author truly captures how a family like this would react if they genuinely think they are Turks but are treated otherwise.
The novel is a commendable story told on the lines of history but it lacks anecdotes, as commanded by good novels. “Gerhard swallowed hard. Tears of gratitude swam in his eyes, too, as he watched the coloured lights playing on the dark sea. Life had presented him a mysterious wrapped box, and out of that box had emerged a country called Turkey.” A ‘mysterious wrapped box’ adds nothing to the message here. The clichés defeat the idea of making the reader imagine. The author has tried hard to capture the important events that swept through Turkey from the 1930s to the age of social media, but only manages to fleetingly capture the story of characters without digging deeper.
She has tediously gone into the details of history, which does make the reader feel it really happened. A keen reader would surely appreciate the ‘ups and downs’ of the characters in the story but that enrichment and satisfaction that you get after reading a layered and complex novel is missing. If you are the author’s fan, I would certainly recommend this novel, but for all others, I rate it as an average read. Notwithstanding this, my interest in Turkey has certainly been stoked further!