This picaresque account of a young girl's intellectual and sexual coming of age from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies, through her adventures in Berlin, Istanbul and Paris, enacts multiple acts of translation and transmutation. Emine Sevgi Ozdamar's enunciation of an identity that begins in Turkish and moves into a bold, re-forged and enriched German is accessible and entertaining. The heroine's various incarnations as immigrant factory worker, language student and chambermaid in Berlin, then as a drama student and actress in Turkey, challenge the tired stereotypes that haunt too many literary representations of migration.
Ozdamar has a Dickensian talent for creating vivid portraits of ordinary people as complex and individual. The immigrants we meet are not simply pitiable victims; they include an opera singer and a secret policewoman, both fleeing unhappy love affairs, a girl saving up for a breast reduction operation, a lesbian couple and an engineering student who quotes Baudelaire. Vasif, the Communist warden at the hostel in Berlin and later a director at the Ankara Ensemble, and Madame Gutsio, an exile from the Fascist dictatorship in Greece, feed the teenager's prodigious appetite for revolutionary theatre, film, politics and literature.
Identity seems multiplied and enriched rather than compromised by translocation. As the heroine's mother remarks: "a language is like a person, two languages are like two people". Her father observes that she left Istanbul as a (Turkish) nightingale and returns as a (German) parrot, but this isn't quite right. Ozdamar's writing is subversively literal: when Turkish adjectives are transposed to German, they attain a fresh political and poetic force. The "diamond" of virginity becomes dubious wealth the protagonist is keen to be rid of rather than hoard, so that she can be free to "pursue the beauty of men". The urban ruin the factory girls skulk around after work becomes the "offended" station, the locus of homesickness.
Cultural ignorance, too, is used to make a political point. The intellectuals at the Turkish Workers' Association speak so often of Nietzsche that the factory girls presume that he's the German prime minister.
Ozdamar's novel is an act of literary transubstantiation between languages, cultures, and the flux and intensity of lived experience. Martin Chalmers's English translation from the German retains the rich strangeness of her writing, in all its demotic and lyrical variety. The novel reminds us that literature is a transforming energy at the heart of life. Book vendors in Istanbul lay out their wares, wind leafing through the pages. "Poverty ran in the streets, and the people who in their lives had wanted to do something about it and had been killed as a result now lay down in the street as books. One only had to bend down to them, buy them". Hence many of those killed "entered homes, gathered on the bookshelves next to the pillows and lived in the houses".
Alev Adil heads the department of creative and critical studies, University of Greenwich
Serpent's Tail £10.99 (258pp) £9.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897Reuse content