The title Ayşe Kulin chose for her new novel in a way could be regarded as a metaphor summarizing the lives of her characters. Translated literally, Kanadı Kırık Kuşlar means “broken winged birds”. Indeed, in this book we come across those who try to “fly” towards a better future with their bags full of hope. However, experiencing difficulties and loss, their “wings” get broken on their different paths of life.
The English translation Without a Country focuses on the actual topic of the novel: Living in exile. Starting in 1930s Germany, Ayşe Kulin makes her readers travel from Frankfurt over Zurich to Istanbul and Ankara, ending in today’s Turkey. We follow the Jewish Schlimann family around over three generations. Escaping from their homeland at the moment of Hitler’s seizure of power, Gerhard Schlimann, his wife Elsa and their children Peter and Susanne first find refuge at the house of Elsa’s parents in Zurich. When Gerhard gets a job offer from the Department of Medicine at the Istanbul University, the family decides to settle down in Turkey.
Even though a part of the novel is pure fiction, essential elements are taken from history. Ayşe Kulin brings back to life characters like the famous law professor Ernst E. Hirsch, materials scientist and physicist Arthur von Hippel or composer and music professor Eduard Zuckmayer who once really emigrated to Turkey in order to survive.
At the heart of the novel is the Schlimann family. While Gerhard and daughter Susanne try to accelerate the integration process by trying to learn the Turkish language and culture as fast as possible, Elsa and son Peter insist on their German origins. However, if they want it or not, their new living environment has a lasting impact on their respective identities. Wandering around the streets of Istanbul and having conversations with neighbours like the Armenian Madam, the Atalay family and many others makes the Schlimanns gradually turn into the Şilimans. After a certain time spent in Turkey, nationalities and religions start to blend as shows the following quote: “We once were a Jewish German couple but now we have an American son, a Turkish daughter, and Christian and Muslim grandchildren” (Original text: “Biz Yahudi bir Alman çifttik ama Amerikalı bir oğlumuz, Türk kızımız, Hristiyan ve Müslüman torunlarımız var”).
All family members go through an individual identity crisis. Maybe in the case of Susanne this becomes especially obvious. The girl not only refers to herself as “Suzan” and “Suziş” but also defines herself as “Atatürk’s daughter” which shows how much she feels Turkish. The day she decides to marry her childhood love Demir Atalay, she takes the last step towards becoming Turkish and a Muslim. Many years have to go by until Suzan realizes that to Jews the sensation of exile is not linked to a particular place but rather can be described as an eternal state of soul that cannot be wiped out by assimilation. Like everybody else from her family, she will never exactly know where she belongs.
The second part of the novel focuses on Suzan’s and Demir’s daughter Sude and later on Sude’s and Korhan’s daughter Esra. For the last chapters, Ayşe Kulin changes her narrative perspective by choosing Esra as first person narrator, describing historical events up to the 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt.
Although the Schlimanns/Şilimans experience moments of deep suffering in their personal lives and have to cope with difficult historical events, Ayşe Kulin nevertheless makes us feel that cultural diversity is a “colourful fate” (Original text: “renkli bir kader”). By telling the stories of different Jewish families starting over in Turkey, the writer also highlights the dangers of fascism which can come to the surface in many different forms regardless of the country we are living in. And as it is the case with all insightful novels, Ayşe Kulin provides us with a strong conclusion: When love becomes your nationality and religion, you always feel at home.
Paris, 10/01/2017 © Mine Krause