Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Turk!

Arjouni, Jakob (1987), Happy Birthday, Türke!, Diogenes
ISBN 9783257215441

[English translation: Arjouni, Jakob (1994), Happy Birthday, Turk!, No Exit Press
Translated by Anselm Hollo
ISBN 1874061378]

From Raymond Chandler to Georges Simenon and Jean-Claude Izzo, the hard-boiled detective novel and the noir both have occupied an interesting place within literature. Their clean brethren, police procedural, regular mystery or detective novels are, at best, highly entertaining reads, cleverly structured maybe or elegantly told. There is a reason, however, why critics, even snobbishly inclined ones, are more likely to accept noir or the hard-boiled detective as Literature (note the capital ‘L’) than their less dark or gritty cousins. I think that these genres capture an idea or a feeling for a certain section of society, and manage to create a competent and cunning image of problems troubling the whole of society. The best books written in these genres can provide an impressively accurate idea of the socioeconomic tensions that run through the society of their time, whether it’s Chandler’s Californian wastelands, Simenon’s post-war France or Izzo’s sweaty, bitter Marseille. Instead of using a figure of authority as a way of handling a story, they tend to pick criminals, or private investigators who are little better than criminals and frequently resorting to criminal means. The connection of sexual and political deviation with life as a criminal is probably most often associated with Jean Genet’s magnificent novels, but in the best of hard-boiled detective and noir novels, it has always been present. Thus they often manage to furnish a sharp commentary on the current situation in their countries, via the dark underbelly of the society’s sinners, those who serve as scapegoats and victims, sources of exploitative practices and thought. This is what makes these genres endure, what turned their writers into literary legends and influential figures even within the mainstream literary canon after a while.

During these writers’ lifetimes, their work is often seen as merely entertaining, however, which is one of the reasons why writers like Jakob Arjouni are not fêted and showered with prizes for their genre writing. After all, Arjouni, who is a bestselling writer of genre fiction (although he’s increasingly been publishing more blatantly ‘literary’ books), writes work that is often as perceptive and incisive as that of political writers and literary giants like Heinrich Böll or Günter Grass. His 1985 debut novel, Happy Birthday, Türke! (translated into English as Happy Birthday, Turk! and into French as Bonne fête, le Turc!) is the first of, so far, four books modeled on Chandler’s novels about private eye Philip Marlowe. It remains as vital and interesting as it was the very year it was first published. But despite the fact that Happy Birthday, Türke provides as cogent and focused a comment on the state of Germany in the mid-1980s, as regards race, sexuality and history, as any other book written that decade, Arjouni’s book and its followup volumes are primarily perceived as “great reads”, “pleasurable”, “intriguing entertainment” or “suspenseful”, to quote randomly from reviews. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the books are crammed with adventure and violence. Happy Birthday, Türke is chock full of stuff, full, of fights, exposures, sex, and an awful lot of drinking. There is little thinking, events just keep piling up, people get punched, stabbed and shot, conspiracies are uncovered, people are blackmailed, gassed and run over by cars. Prostitutes and pimps, policemen and drug dealers, Turks and Germans, all play a role (or several) in this eventful little book. Arjouni wrote it at the tender age of 22, and the speed, the impulsive, playful, angry quality of youthful writing streams from every pore of this book and is one of its strongest points.

Less strong is the actual writing, although it’s more correct to call it less literary. Happy Birthday, Türke! is written in a wild melange of voices. There are different dialects, various registers, all warring for domination and there is no narrative voice that is careful and literary enough to tame the diverse sounds into one coherent soundscape, into a hierarchy of sounds. This aspect is perfectly fitting for the lack of hierarchies and authoritative instances in Arjouni’s novel and is one of many instances where his choices as a writer are surprisingly spot-on for such a young man. Happy Birthday, Türke! is set in Frankfurt, the capital of the German state Hessen, in west-central Germany, and he does a great job of conveying the local dialect to his readers. Arjouni, who went on to write plays as well as novels, seems to have a knack for finding the right register, the right tone for each of his characters. He rightly recognizes that even regiolects are indicative of diastratic varieties and the moment a character, no matter how minor they might be, opens their mouth, we have a clear sense of their place in the social order of 1980s Frankfurt. There’s no need for Arjouni to spend hours explaining histories and contexts to his readers: by grabbing his characters by the tongue, so to say, he nails down their situation in an uncannily precise manner. That said, the language isn’t perfect or even particularly great in the book, despite Arjouni’s instincts and insights. One problem, and this is not a small one, is that he seems, far too often, stiff and artificial when rendering dialogue that does not contain regiolects. As many, many other German writers and reviewers, Arjouni, too, seems incapable of rendering colloquial language in a lively and believable manner. That need not be a strong disadvantage, but his book relies so much on the descriptive and narrative power of colloquialisms that a lack of skill in that department is an enormous problem for the book.

Another problem has to do with the fact that the book’s narrator is its protagonist, the private detective Kemal Kayankaya. He is Turk “by birth” but, orphaned early, he had grown up with German parents, went to the Gymnasium, and then, for fun, started his private eye business. He doesn’t speak Turkish, and he is untouched by other aspects of Turkish culture, as well. His horizon, as far as culture and education is concerned, is that of a moderately well-off German, who has recently fallen on hard times. That conflict, between the level of education, his current standing in his society and a clear wish to be somewhat cool, produces his language, which is the only constant voice in the book. It is itself, however, not ‘constant’. The uneven flow of his voice is oddly uncomfortable. Cheap jokes, hard-boiled asides, reasoned remarks and observations and a generally uncouth attitude are taking turns in Arjouni’s book. Except for the fact that he never lapses into local dialect, his voice seems less his own, than a mixture of other people’s voices. This impression is exacerbated by the fact that there are few deliberations, a decided lack of sentimentalities or interiorities, in keeping with the genre of the hard-boiled detective novel. As readers, we are often left with what feels like a patchwork of quotes, pastiches and homages to Chandler, Hammett and much lesser writers. The very character of Kemal Kayankaya himself is less of an autonomous character and more like a new coat of paint on an already very familiar model. All this, while interesting in concept, can make for slightly annoying reading, because, no matter how fitting, how smart or well thought-out that kind of language is, it’s always teetering on the brink of trash. Quoting and paraphrasing trashy writing, as Arjouni frequently does, has the downside of introducing that trashy quality into one’s own pages. Arjouni’s decision not to use a dominant and overarching artistic frame or narrative means that the trashy writing, irregardless whether its quoted or not, keeps jostling its ways to the forefront of the book.

As I already mentioned, the titular Turk, Happy Birthday, Türke!‘s protagonist Kemal Kayankaya is a paint-by-numbers hard-boiled detective. He drinks a lot, is not hesitant to beat people with a fist, random objects or his hand gun, he keeps his cool with girls, with such a tried-and-true mixture of condescension and flirtatiousness that we almost expect him to call them ‘dolls’. He is tough on the outside but has a hard of gold, hidden somewhere in his battered body. Because not only does he hit people a lot, he also gets hit a lot, in the face, in the stomach, on the head and elsewhere. For most of the book he is nursing the bruises from the first beating he receives in the course of this investigation, reminding this reader of Jack Gitte’s injured and bandaged nose. Like many heroes from the books and movies that served Arjouni as inspirations, Kayankaya is fully engaged, with his body, life and, in a way, his whole existence, on the line. This has always been one of the most interesting differences between the dark and the light kind of mysteries. Despite the occasional threats to regular detectives and police officials in the light mysteries, these are easily categorized threats, usually reducible to one specific hostile party. There is never that utter, tantalizing precariousness of noir and hard-boiled detective novels. Even Marlowe, white and male, with the confidence and swagger of the privileged prick, is balancing there. The fears of the privileged, sexual, violent and political, which often form literary subtext, are palpable, endangering forces in these works. It’s Arjouni’s genius that his protagonist’s very identity is informed by such a balancing act. Culturally, he is a (white) German male, but the Other, which in Germany is more often the Turkish immigrant than Gilroy’s blacks, is also part of his identity, since his outward appearance betrays his Turkish ancestry.

This is Arjouni’s innovation, this is what he added to the long tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel. In 1985 Frankfurt, we learn, Turks are despised even by street hookers, traditionally viewed as pretty low on the ladder of social hierarchy. Turks, Kayankaya’s interlocutor’s often assume, can’t speak German, are stupid, criminal, greedy, or sexual perverts. He is an outcast, often literally, as his skin alone is reason enough to have himself thrown out of various houses and establishments. He is paid to investigate the murder of a Turkish worker (the plot, convoluted though it is, is just as hard-boiled-by-numbers as the protagonist himself), and is soon almost submerged by a wave of hate. The racism, both popular and institutional, is mind-boggling, and makes Happy Birthday, Türke! often an especially dark read. The language and the narrative is so quirky and often at pains not to dwell on the dark aspects, but the Kafkaesque nightmare of living in a city the main inhabitants of which despise you because of how you look, often breaks through. As the book progresses, we quickly find that the cheap jokes and puns are often stabs at gallows humor. In only two quick, almost unremarked, asides, Arjouni points to the historical continuity of all that hate, by having one retired policeman help Kayankaya, a policeman who had occasionally disobeyed orders during the Third Reich, as well, in order to help Jews. The vision of Germany here is unremittingly bleak, but what shines are Arjouni’s instincts. Arjouni himself is German, his real name is Jakob Bothe, he’s the son of Hans Günter Michelsen, a reasonably well-known German playwright. The novel shows us that he’s marvelously aware of the problems that writing from a privileged angle involves and all the evasive, non-dominant aspects of the novel suddenly appear to be geared to create a writing that can narrate a Turkish story without exploiting, exoticizing or Othering Turks or foreigners in general. The protagonist’s voice itself represents a retreat from narrative privilege. That does not usually make for better reading, but it does add layers of intrigue to the whole book.

That level of awareness and conceptual clarity is rare enough in experienced writers, but in a 22 year old, it’s wondrous. As is the longevity of his insights into German culture and politics. Today’s resurgence of racism is similarly patterned, although it’s often coated with claims of ‘religious criticism’. The same thing that appears to power politics in southern US states, where Chicano studies have to battle absurd accusations of anti-white racism, is slowly taking over discourses in Germany as well. For a few years, resentment at the difference of Turks has been mounting. Germans expect Turks to not speak with a dialect, to not speak Turkish, to dress properly, and be quiet with their religious beliefs. Germans have settled into a feeling of resentment, whether towards Turks or Jews or other minorities. For decades, this was complicated and tempered by a slow-burning guilt over the Third Reich and its atrocities. This has changed. Germans are now expecting those who aren’t German to assimilate, to come to heel, and any kind of cultural or ideological independence is viewed almost as an act of treason. The atmosphere, and the rage that fuels it, has an almost Wilhelminian (the Second) air about it. Arjouni’s novel, published 25 years ago, manages to provide such a cogent vision of the dark underbelly of the Germany of its time, that its implicit conclusions and indictments are still valid, still bleak and the book is still worth reading. This is a crime novel that demonstrates why that genre is so vibrant, powerful and important, to this day. With hesitations, with caveats, I nevertheless recommend this short and harsh little book.

A short personal note. As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.


5 thoughts on “Jakob Arjouni: Happy Birthday, Turk!

  1. Marcel, I’ve been delving a lot into noir fiction in the past year, including the writers you cite in the beginning as well as James Sallis and Chester Himes (the latter paralleling some of the unique characteristics you find in Arjouni’s work) and I have to say that your analysis of the power of the noir genre is incisive, and to my way of thinking, spot-on. I’d love to see you review something by James Sallis, some day.

  2. Hello,

    I am the Eastern Hemisphere editor of Noir Nation: International Journal of Crime Fiction. I am interested in this writer Arjouni, Jakob. Do you know him or have a contact for him? Also I am interested in any crime or crime noir writers from Turkey. I would very much like to have some Turkish writers in our second issue. We also publish essays and graphic novels. And we pay.

    You seem to know a lot about noir and keep up on the writers in Turkey, perhaps you would be interested in submitting an essay for consideration in our second issue? Perhaps on the state of Turkish noir, or the history and development of Turkish noir?

    Please feel free to contact me (alan [at] noirnation.com] to discuss it further. Also there are submission guidelines on our website http://noirnation.com



  3. Pingback: Jacob Arjouni died « shigekuni.

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