Das Leben ist eine Karawanserai hat zwei Türen aus einer kam ich rein aus der andren ging ich raus
(Life Is A Caravanserai Has Two Doors I Came In One I Went Out The Other)
Emine Sevgi Özdamar
Trans. Luise von Flotow. London, Middlesex University Press, 2002
Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s Life is a Caravanserai
should be read by anyone interested in migrant literature, if only for its dense and unruly condensation of the genre—a primer in zwittertext estrangement and difference. And how strange it is!
subverts the migrant bildungsroman by situating the narrative in the homeland, Turkey, from memories in utero
to just before the girl-protagonist’s moment of departure. Until the final train-scene where she rides to Deutschland amongst aging prostitutes, our teenaged heroine’s tapestry of myth and history, remembrance and insanity, is largely untouched by the foreign Other. True enough, “Erol Flayn” and “Humprey Pockart”—Americans who don’t have to eat, they just take pills—slip through the cracks, but what occupies her stream-of-consciousness is the contradictions rife in Turkish society. She is, all at once, a Kurd stricken by war and poverty, a devout Muslim woman who revels in ribald sensuality, a child whose thoughts are shaped by wars new and old and unending.
Despite the grim memories evoked by historical retellings—from Anatolian marginalization to the oiled rise of Ataturk—Ozdamar brandishes wonderfully irreverent humor, or glosses over the characters’ pain altogether. After a semester’s worth of “writing from the margins”, this is unbelievably refreshing. Ozdamar manages to narrate Turkey without a whit of sentimentality, and at the same time, explores the Turkish gastarbeiter’s source culture without us-versus-Them hostility vis-à-vis Germany. It is through language that confrontation occurs: a German mutilated by halting grammar, its wounds filled with Turkish aphorisms and syntactic structures underlying a Kurdish core.
It must be said, however, that this review is inspired by Luise von Flotow’s English translation and this writer can only hope that it conveys half the nuances available to German/Turkish readers. As it stands, the language von Flotow uses is clipped, angular, plagued with a lack of articles, unruly prepositions and strange transliterated metaphors (ie. shaking out worms meant going for a walk), comprising a narrative completely devoid of chapter breaks. This makes for novel that is exhausting to read, but whose inner rhythms make strangely compelling. (One must mourn all that is lost in translation: several online articles state that “Cotton Aunt”, to Turkishborn, is a fond reference to a madame of a brothel.)
The general consensus is that Caravanserai
is impenetrable. Not completely so. What strikes me is the sense of prescience that dominates the narrative and, upon reflection, seems to dictate the strangeness of the language involved. As stated by her own mother, the protagonist “opens her eyes wide, like the insane.” Her eyes unjudgingly record all that is in front of her, a calm acceptance of truth that within society’s dictates is deemed madness. (Indeed, madness, particularly the politicized madness of women, is as crucial here as in many migrant texts.) This may be read as yet another transgression committed by Ozdamar: unlike many postcolonial heroines, the persona of Caravanserai
has no issues with identity. She knows who she is, a surety that springs from the history of Turkey (but remains unfettered to it), one free to exist in the migrant land of Germany yet unknown.