“Those who leave can never return, because the places they knew disappear.”
A Light Still Burns, by Selim Özdoğan (translated by Ayça Türkoğlu and Katy Derbyshire), is the third book in the author’s Anatolian Blues trilogy. I have not read the first two parts and, although this finale succeeded in telling a complete story, I pondered if my inability to warm to any of the characters stemmed from not having shared in their earlier life experiences.
The protagonist, Gül, married her husband, Fuat, when just fifteen years old. Her recollection of this decision was a desire to give her family one less mouth to feed. Following the death of her mother when she was a child, Gül helped raise her siblings and then half-siblings. Stemming from this she expects gratitude and respect for her efforts – she regards them as sacrifices, especially as it led to a curtailment of her education. When this is not forthcoming from her siblings, it causes resentment.
Early in their marriage Fuat decides to leave home and family in Turkey to become an economic migrant in Germany. Gül accompanies him, leaving their two infant daughters with her mother-in-law. The eighteen month separation from her children haunts her throughout her life, the damage she fears she inflicted on them.
Gül and Fuat take whatever jobs are available in Bremen, where they settle. Gül makes little effort to learn the local language and assimilate, mixing mostly with other Turkish immigrants. She makes friends but then chooses to go back to Turkey, for reasons I expect are covered in the previous book.
This story opens when Gül is around forty years old and returning to Germany to be with her husband after eight years back in her homeland. Their daughters are now grown, one living in each country. Fuat is not exactly welcoming, the reason for this causing a rift that does not heal. Gül does not regard marriage as a happy state, observing conflict between most couples she knows, and yet she insists the vows made on her wedding day must be kept. She blames Fuat for indulging in the interests that bring him pleasure, for his outlook on life, his sense of entitlement and endless complaints, especially about money.
“Fuat is a keen skiver – not because he’s lazy, but because he feels smart when he does less than he’s supposed to without suffering any consequences.”
The tale follows Gül into her sixties. She works diligently at her cleaning job until retirement, trusting Fuat to put their earnings aside to keep them comfortable when they eventually make the planned move back to Turkey. Each summer they travel to their homeland, spending many weeks with family in the parental summer house. She regards these as happy times and is particularly devastated when an inheritance causes division between the siblings. She had believed the Turks valued family, unlike the Germans in her estimation.
“That’s why people here are so lonely. They want to have their own lives just for themselves, without any consideration for others.”
The author skilfully captures the immigrant mindset and experience, especially across the generations as attitudes and values change. His portrayal of both men and women avoids the usual pitfalls. Although I struggled to empathise, particularly with Gül – who made little effort to change even small aspects of her life that she was unhappy with – her thinking is portrayed with care and insight.
“Her daughters are keeping secrets from her […] She sees less and less of the world because she only wants to see the things she approves of.”
Gül, and to a lesser extent her daughters, concern themselves with how others may gossip about them. The constraints this imposes prevents them from walking paths that may lead to greater happiness. There is little attempt to bridge the chasm between acceptable behaviours in men and women.
Mention is made of how Germans object to the many Turkish immigrants who tend to live within their enclaves, rarely mixing with local natives. Given the behaviour of Fuat when he takes on a job cleaning, and of young Cal whose attempts to get rich quick by whatever means keep landing him in prison, this dislike is understandable. Although the immigrants long to return to their homeland with the wealth accrued, Turkey is still regarded by the younger generations as less free and accepting than Germany. As Fuat and Gül age, they each seek new interests, coming to terms with past decisions made and their failing bodies.
“No alcohol, no fat, no going to bed late, and ideally no more gambling either. Apparently, you can grow older without these pleasures, but the question is, why would anyone want to?”
The writing style and structure impressed so I questioned throughout why I was suffering such a failure of empathy. I could not warm to Fuat due to his interests and attitude, his unpleasant selfishness. Gül had more depth but offered little to endear a reader. She smoked like a train despite complaining of lack of money to phone home, expected special treatment from the family she had chosen to leave behind, and spent much of her time staring out a window rather than exploring her neighbourhood. She seems happier when eventually back living comfortably in Turkey, although the means by which this came about felt a rare misstep in the story. Her changing relationships did, however, elicit more understanding from this reader.
“It’s not a question of languages; there are never enough words when you want to tell someone how you feel.”
I can’t say that I enjoyed this book despite its many admirable qualities. I wanted to better understand the immigrant experience whereas what I got was reasons why they are so resented by locals unless they assimilate. Not getting what is desired and expected from a story may, of course, reflect more on reader than author. However much I may admire the composition, my lack of connection to the characters made this a lacklustre read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.