Serenade for Nadia
by Zulfu Livaneli
Other Press, 417 pp.
Reviewed by Janice Weizman
Years ago, when I first came across Erich Auerbauch’s classic of literary criticism, Mimesis, I was surprised to discover that it’s author was a German-Jewish philologist working at the University of Istanbul, after being forced to leave his position in at the University of Marburg in 1935. There was a rich and terrible irony in the fact that this masterpiece, which traces the development of Western literature from Homer to Virginia Woolf, was written by a man exiled from Europe as the civilization he wrote about seemed to be imploding. Though Auerbach has only a cameo appearance in Serenade for Nadia, which is set in 2001, the lingering presence of his book signifies a beacon of light in a dark world, something humanity might still, in our time, shore up against its ruin.
For Maya Duran, a sensitive and intelligent thirty-six year-old Turkish woman living in Istanbul, life is a struggle. Recently divorced, she juggles her job as a public relations officer for Istanbul University with raising her sullen teenage son. As part of her duties she is assigned the task of meeting Maximilian Wagner, an eighty-seven year old American professor, at the airport, and arranging the logistics of his visit. It’s not a scenario one would expect to set the scene for a recollection of some of the worst horrors of the century that has just ended. Yet this surprising novel ambitiously juxtaposes the concerns of a woman trying to navigate the challenge of being an unmarried female in a deeply patriarchal society with the lingering legacy of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the fate of those forced to take sides.
Far-reaching and complex historical events are often best explored through the personal narratives of individuals caught in their matrix. From their first meeting, Maya feels a distinct chemistry with Wagner, who, it turns out, was born into a Roman Catholic family and raised in Munich. “I’m not a particularly warm or outgoing person.” Maya writes in her account of her relationship with him. “In fact many people find me cold, but for some reason I felt I’d clicked with this man right away. There was something about his demeanor, about the way he looked around at the vast new concrete city….an air that was at the same time dignified and deeply wounded.”
It soon transpires that Wagner lived in Istanbul from 1939 to 1942, and that he was one of many German professors, among them Jewish refugees, welcomed to Turkey in order to continue their work at Istanbul University. As Max explains to Maya, “The new Turkish Republic was ten years old, and the regime’s efforts to westernize relied on German scholars…” Yet he is reluctant to talk about what has brought him back to Turkey. The story he eventually shares centers on the fate of the Struma, a decrepit ship that sailed from Romania in the hope of reaching Palestine. The overcrowded ship, filled with 769 Jews (though it had only 100 bunks and one toilet) managed to cross the Black sea and then anchored in Istanbul to undergo repairs. Because the British refused to give assurance that the passengers would be issued visas to Palestine, they were not allowed to disembark, and after months of fruitless efforts to resolve the situation, the boat was sent back into the Black sea, where it was sunk by a Russian torpedo. Max’s Jewish wife, Nadia, was one of the victims, and he has never stopped feeling grief and guilt over her fate.
Parallel to Max’s story line are Maya’s revelations about her own roots. Her mother’s mother, she discovers early on in the book, is the survivor of the Armenian genocide, orphaned as a young child after her parents were murdered. “I felt as if the ground had fallen away from beneath me,” Maya recalls her reaction when learning of it. “My grandmother was Armenian. I never had any idea. In fact the thought had never occurred to me. I’d always loved her so much, and I felt a sense of shame for not having known about what happened to her as a child. For not having the slightest clue about the pain she’d live with all her life.”
After sharing the information with her brother, a high-ranking officer in the Turkish military, he reveals that their maternal grandmother too has a secret and complex story, and that her community’s history is replete with murder and betrayal. “Just about every family in Turkey has secrets like these,” her brother tells her. “A lot of people aren’t even aware of their family secrets.”
These troubling disclosures and legacies form a backdrop to Maya’s own difficulties. After her driver reports that that he found her and Max in a seemingly compromising situation, the story appears in the newspaper under the headline, “Scandal at Istanbul University” , threatening her reputation, and her job. It’s hard to envision this episode as news that would make its way into the press, and some readers may question, as I did, whether this marks an improbable plot device, or is if it is in fact reflective of what constitutes a scandal in Turkey. In the world of the novel, however, the threat is real, and Maya is given the choice to resign or be fired for “moral turpitude.”
At times, it seems that Seranade for Nadia is juggling so many secrets and tragedies that they overwhelm the narrative and dissipate the sense of horror each might evoke on its own. It is to Livaneli’s credit, however, that the story does come together, depicting a sense of the way we all live with the horrendous baggage of previous century. Livaneli, an award winning author, composer, film director, politician, and human rights activist, is a well known public figure in Turkey. His work, which often takes up painful political and historical themes, has been translated into numerous languages. The translated prose in Serenade for Nadia comes across as straight forward and unadorned, with little linguistic flare, but this is amply compensated by the opportunity to experience the world, and modern history, through the voice of a character not often seen in English translation.
The amalgamation of stories brought together here mirrors a central concept in Memsis, namely that rather than being the product of a specific culture, literature is an expression of human culture in a universal sense. When Max asks Maya to promise that she will translate Mimesis in to Turkish, she eagerly agrees, and it’s a project that leaves her with a sense of the many stories and histories that she has internalized, and that she herself embodies. When she arrives in the US in order to speak with Max one last time, she muses, “No one there would ask about my religion. And if they did, I had a ready answer. I was Muslim, Jewish and Catholic. In other words, I was a human being.”