4 d’octubre del 2013

A Master of Crime Fiction in a Nation Lacking Them

[The New York Times, 3 october 2013] 

Jakob Arjouni’s Last Novel, Now in English

William Grimes

George Bernard Shaw once remarked that there were two things that Germans have no talent for: revolution and crime novels. Jakob Arjouni proved him half wrong, at any rate.

When Diogenes, a Zurich publishing house, brought out his first novel, “Happy Birthday, Turk!” in 1985, Germans got their first taste of an exotic flavor that soon proved addictive.
Kemal Kayankaya, Mr. Arjouni’s Frankfurt-based private eye, was an anomaly. Though Turkish by birth, he spoke German like a native and often seemed like an American, with a cynical worldview and a wiseguy sense of humor straight out of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. German readers loved him.
“Arjouni was the first writer to put a self-confident, aggressive, individual and charming German Turk on the national stage as a character in popular culture,” said Gabriele Dietze, a fellow at Humboldt University in Berlin and a former crime-novel editor. “Kayankaya was the first self-aware immigrant hero.”
“Happy Birthday, Turk!,” which involves the murder of a Turkish immigrant and a sinister drug ring, became an immediate best seller. It was made into a 1992 film directed by Doris Dörrie, and Mr. Arjouni, in due course, followed with three sequels: “More Beer,” “One Man, One Murder” and “Kismet.” The books, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, were translated into 23 languages.
Melville House Books in Brooklyn has just published an English translation of his “Brother Kemal,” the first Kayankaya novel in more than a decade, and the last in the series.
On Jan. 17, Mr. Arjouni died in Berlin of the pancreatic cancer that had set him racing against the clock to finish the book. He was 48.
There is nothing in “Brother Kemal” to suggest an author at death’s door. The sardonic humor survives intact, the writing is energetic, the plot moves right along. In the first few pages, Kayankaya confronts a mysterious new client: an attractive middle-aged woman with an eye-catching tattoo and a wayward teenage daughter. The first dead body shows up right on time.
In a twisting subplot, Kayankaya agrees to guard a Moroccan writer whose controversial novel has inflamed Islamic radicals, who may attack him at the Frankfurt book fair. The novel’s disparate strands gradually entwine.
Most important, Kayankaya, although older and heavier, stays true to character. “He is reliable, down to earth, even a bit of a Philistine,” Mr. Arjouni told the Austrian critic and editor Christian Seiler in an interview published in October 2012.
Although Kayankaya is indifferent to politics, his investigations entangle him in hot-button issues like immigration, racism, ecoterrorism and, in “Brother Kemal,” militant Islam.
“This is ripped-from-the-headlines stuff, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with it,” said Dennis Johnson, a founder and publisher of Melville House, which has reissued all the Kayankaya novels. “You don’t realize you are reading a political novel, but you are.”
For years, readers and critics alike assumed that Mr. Arjouni, like Kayankaya, was at least partly Turkish. Mr. Arjouni made little effort to correct that impression, which was false. He was born in Frankfurt, the son of Hans Günter Michelsen, a fairly well-known playwright, and Ursula Bothe, a theatrical publisher, whose last name he used.
When he began writing, he borrowed a new surname from Kadisha Arjouni, a Moroccan woman he met in France and to whom he was briefly married.
Readers were not wrong to identify Mr. Arjouni with his detective, however. “I could never have written so naturally about Kayankaya — a Frankfurter with Turkish parents and a bent for certain surroundings — if I hadn’t been him, up to a certain point,” he told Mr. Seiler. “When I met him again with ‘Brother Kemal,’ it was as if I were meeting a very close old friend.”
In an interview with BBC Radio 4 in 2007, he explained further. “I didn’t have a stable family,” he said. “I was often in new social situations. I had to meet a lot of new people as a child. I had to figure out very quickly: Who is my enemy, who is my friend?”
Like his detective, Mr. Arjouni gravitated to the seedy district around Frankfurt’s railway station, an area dotted, in the 1980s, with sex clubs, brothels, cheap hotels and fast-food restaurants. Mr. Arjouni spent his formative years haunting a pool hall in the neighborhood.
His tastes in film and literature were already formed. He avidly watched the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. At 12, he read “Red Harvest,” by Hammett, and never recovered. “I didn’t understand all of it, but it made a huge impression,” he wrote in a brief autobiographical statement for his publishing house.
One reason it made an impression is that German crime fiction, particularly the hard-boiled variety, barely existed. Only Jörg Fauser, whom Mr. Arjouni came to admire, had any kind of reputation. Television police dramas monopolized the genre.
“There is not much room for a P.I. to move in Germany,” Ms. Dietze said. “Gun licenses are hard to get. There is no repo system, no bail-jumping, and the municipal police won’t cooperate. Citizens think, ‘Why should we pay for services the police have to provide?’ Because we have a national register, people are easy to track. German P.I.’s normally do husband-and-wife cheating surveillance and some insurance stuff in the gray area.”
Today, the crime field is crowded with new authors. Encouraged by the success of Scandinavian writers in the genre, some are poised to make an assault on the United States. In January, Minotaur Books published “Snow White Must Die” by Nele Neuhaus, whose crime novels have sold in the millions in Germany since 2005.
Mr. Arjouni produced work in a wide variety of genres. In addition to crime fiction, he wrote plays and several highly regarded novels. The Kayankaya series remained his signature, however.
“It is interesting that instead of writing a literary novel, Jakob returned to Kayankaya,” Mr. Johnson said. “That’s the way he wanted to go out. That was the statement he wanted to make.”

0 comentaris:

Publica un comentari a l'entrada

Google Analytics Alternative