Salzmann, Sasha Marianna (2017), Ausser Sich, Suhrkamp
This was not, strictly speaking, the next review I wanted to write, but after I finished it this morning I was so impressed, so genuinely stunned by this book that I decided to review it right away. This is one of the best books I read all year, and almost certainly one of the best three books I read that were published in 2017. Sasha Marianna Salzmann wrote a torrential novel about abuse, history, identity, sexuality, family, I mean God knows what. So it has a few edges that could be sanded off, and maybe it’s a 600 page novel trapped in the body of a 400 page novel, with the author maybe rushing things too much at times, but those are minor complaints faced with such accomplishment on so many other levels. In Ausser Sich, Salzmann tells a story of fluid identities, of twins who lose each other, of gender and sex, of what it means to be Russian, Jewish, German, Turkish. She sketches, with extraordinary skill, the Soviet past of several couples, offering a view of identity that is both broad and delivered with narrative aplomb, and at the same time focused on specific faultlines, lines that connect and disconnect the families. It’s a fantastic book about language, and how language shapes our sense of self, of culture, of history. And all of this written in a style that is just the right amount of uncontrolled, provides just the right measure of disjuncture and madness. This is a book you want, you need to read. And translate.
This is Salzmann’s first novel, but she’s no novice at writing. Her background is in theatre, and it shows in the roiling volcano of language here. The majority of the book would work extremely well as a theatrical monologue. Salzmann wrote most of the book from the perspective of Alissa, twin sister of Anton, children of Jewish Russian immigrants, and that voice basically explodes on the page. The author isn’t as good when switching points of view, other characters don’t sound appreciably different or different enough, but then, the book doesn’t aim for realism, as much as it dances circles around the idea of simple representational realism. In fact, Salzmann masterfully zooms in and out of ideas of realism, and metafiction and magical realism. This becomes clear towards the end. Early in the book, a character reads a novel by Aglaja Veteranyi, and I have noted the importance of that excellent writer for German-language immigrant literature before. Later, we meet a character called Aglaja in Istanbul who gets injured during the Gezi riots. That Aglaja shares many biographical traits with the real Aglaja, but we are never invited to speculate about some overlap – Aglaja Veteranyi killed herself in 2002, while the Gezi Park protests took place in 2013. And yet – the novel connects this Aglaja to all its major characters, and goes out of its way to describe her biography. This comes after a lengthy exploration of gender fluidity, and is in a sense the final nail in the coffin of reading the novel as plain, if energetically told, realism.
At the same time, there’s no doubt that some parts of the novel rely on, and, really, specifically demand of us to read them as realism. Those parts mostly concern the historical portions of the book. Salzmann is very clear about the limits that patriarchy, sexism and antisemitism played in limiting the possibilities of her characters in Soviet Russia. Her history is not disinterested recounting of chronology – almost as a kind of contrast to what she describes in the book’s present, her history is one where paths have to be followed, where roles do not allow for any divergence. And the limits placed on people are twofold – limits we place on ourselves, as men, as women, as gentiles, as Jews. And limits others place on us, in the same roles. There are small shifts that are allowed, brief respite from pressures. There is a kind of lecturing here, or an implied one, and this would not work unless we can rely on the book’s accuracy, broadly speaking, in matters of historical realism. And yet at the same time, Salzmann doesn’t shy away from toying with fictionality. She connects her characters to the broader movements of history, offering snippets of discourse on history as narrative, rather than as iron-clad fact, including the Grand Narrative of Stalinism. What’s more – Salzmann ties in her constant discourse on the role of language on the construction of identity in these sections, suggesting, for example, that the lack of gendered professional nouns helped usher in generations of hardened, tough women in postwar soviet Russia.
All the historical diversions and the comments on language, they are all incidental to the main storyline, they broaden and buttress its concerns but they are not pe se part of it. Sometimes, Ausser Sich reads like a pond of invention. And that fits the main storyline. Alissa and Anton are twins, Jewish-Russian immigrants in Germany. The book isn’t enormously interested in the Russian immigrant experience in Germany, we just get a few broad sketches here and there, mostly about the difference between being seen as Russian or Jewish, and about the barriers thrown up by language. What we do get is the immense sense of isolation the twins feel, and the violence they undergo at the hands of their fellow high school students. This isolation and violence then pushes them to embrace each other in a way that eventually turns sexual and towards incest. Salzmann’s language is at its very best in describing violence and sexuality, enormously so. Another book I read this weekend that I considered reviewing (and still might) is Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet, a very mixed kind of book. In it there’s also incest, and it’s noted almost in passing: in a flat tone, using the heavy weight of the term “incest” itself to ground the situation. Salzmann never uses the word, but she describes an unusually tense connection between two people.
And of course, all that leads into the present of the book and Alissa’s search for her twin, a desperate, grasping search that lands her in Istanbul. Indeed, most of the book’s plot is set in Istanbul, which is maybe not what you’d expect from a Russian immigrant writing a novel about Russian immigrants to Germany. Istanbul, pre-Gezi park crackdown, is portrayed as a place of possibilities, of fluidity. This is the present – and it contrasts with the past’s rigidity. Salzmann is very clear that gender is not something inherent, it’s something external, a role that you can take or leave, although in most oppressing situations, you are not, indeed, free to take or leave it. But the Istanbul, as portrayed, does have this possibility, of changing pronouns, of transforming gender. There’s a Turkish man who comes out as being in this process of transformation, and Alissa herself, deprived of her brother, starts taking testosterone shots and take on masculinity. Salzmann shows us the process as a process, as a transformational moment, chosen as an encounter with pressures, with the outside, a negotiation of identity. At the same time, it is no light switch back and forth. It is a transformation of the body into something new, something different. At some point, Alissa discusses her fluid identity as a weakness, her inability to take up a perspective that is truly, unmistakably hers. Identity, she tells us, involves reading – and reconstituting- signs and narratives. Negotiating reality, narrative and imagination.
And that is what literature does, good literature that is, isn’t it. This brings us back to the way the book uses Aglaja Veteranyi’s name and biography. Veteranyi’s complicated life and heritage are offered as representative of a certain kind of cosmopolitan fluidity, of the way all our heritages are mixed, or not all our heritages, but the heritage of those of us who are immigrants, complicated people, fluid, searching, maybe lost. My own heritage is mixed Russian, Kazakh, German, Hungarian, and Ukrainian. I’ve been writing about my own family for a few months now, and it’s sometimes difficult, and complicated. Who are you, when you’re in between languages and nations? Maybe my own fluid identity is why I find Salzman’s book so compelling. But even outside of personal bias and preference, Salzmann’s novel packs a punch. This is a book about identity and nationality that evades easy answers, or rather that offers multiple answers, complicated by the reality of our bodies and limit. It was up for a German Book Award and it’s honestly inconceivable why it didn’t win. There are minor flaws here, certainly, but this is one of the best books I read all year, and the only way for this author is up. What’s more, it should be a shoo-in for translation. Salzmann’s language is literary and skilled, but almost without any specific Germany idiosyncrasies that would make it harder to translate. Jirgl, among German contemporary novelists, would come to mind as the opposite of that.
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