Saturday, May 22, 2010

Girl on Book Action: The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Özdamar

The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Özdamar
ISBN: 978-1-85242-932-4


In 1966, at the age of 16, our unnamed heroine leaves her native Istanbul and signs up as a migrant worker in Germany. Lying about her age, she gets work on an assembly line in West Berlin making radios, and lives in a women’s factory hostel.

The Bridge of the Golden Horn is a witty, picaresque account of a precocious teenager refusing to become wise; of a hectic four years lived between Berlin and Istanbul; of a young woman who is obsessed by theatre, film, poetry, and left-wing politics.


My Thoughts:

This novel is one of the books I’m reading for a class on Transnational German Literature. Let me take a moment to explain this terminology, since I think it’s a bit of a foreign concept in North America and not everyone spends their time taking German Lit classes. You see, Germany (and Austria and some other European countries) have a very different policy when it comes to immigration and citizenship. Until recently, only people who could prove that they have German ancestors could be German citizens regardless of how many generations ago your family may have moved to Germany. However, people still immigrated to Germany and they write literature in German, but these books are not always considered part of the German canon, instead, they are grouped as “migrant literature,” or “exilic literature.” The term Transnational Literature is intended to sidestep some of the stigmas attached to the other names. Alright, I’m done with my lecture; now let me talk about the book.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. There are some aspects I really enjoyed, and some that just really didn’t do anything for me. I think I’ll start with the things that I didn’t like, so as to be able to end on a positive note (clearly I’m a very positive person).

The thing that I disliked the most has to be the narrative style. The sentences felt short and clipped and repetitive. I prefer to have variety in my sentences when I’m reading something. Once again, some of these stylistic gripes may be a translation issue and I am intending to give the original German a look (yay for being somewhat bilingual). The book is split into two sections, the first takes place largely in Berlin, the second largely in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey. While I understand the purpose and the…message of the first section, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. I think part of this had to do with the fact that the young age of protagonist isn’t really clearly established, so her struggles in Berlin feel juvenile without having the context that she is, indeed, a teenager. Or maybe I’m just dense and insensitive. And the clipped sentences and slightly less sophisticated language point to the experience of being in a foreign city where you don't know the language, which I can appreciate intellectually, but didn't find was super-interesting to read. In the second section, toward the end of the book a lot of the story disappears and the protagonist starts to just speak in newspaper headlines, which I found a little irritating after a while. I had gotten used to her voice and was interested in the story and the headline narrative pulled me out of my immersion in what was happening. Of course, the author may have done this on purpose, who am I to say?

The second section really gripped me (aside from the part just discussed) and I felt that it was both emotional and witty and we all know how much I appreciate wit. I felt that the author really hit the nail on the head in this section in a lot of ways and I was only disappointed when the headline business started toward the end. I just felt this part of the novel was more relateable than the opening and the interactions were more genuine and portrayed with more feeling. I suspect that this shift was also intentional since part two takes place largely in Turkey, whereas part one is set in Berlin and Europe. I might also just be reading too much into it.

At any rate, it was interesting and made me want to research the time-period a little bit more, since I don’t know all that much about West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s and it seems that I’ve missed quite a bit of interesting stuff with regard to the student movement and protests in 1968. Overall then, I would say the book is a success, because any book that makes you want to learn more is doing something right.

There are a lot of nuances and details that I have not discussed in this review, as this is not an academic paper in which one would dissect these types of things, but it's an intricate, complex narrative that I think deserves attention, if you can get through the opening section (okay, it really wasn't that bad - I'm just a nitpicky elitist).

Let me leave you with my favourite quote from the book, which is also a chapter-heading.

“The cigarette was the most important prop of a socialist.” Pg. 187

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