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Language without a childhood

A tribute to the writing of Emine Sevgi Özdamar, whose novels have made Berlin greater, more expansive, warmer. By Harald Jähner

It's not necessarily boring to watch a film in a language you don't understand. You concentrate all the more on other elements of the film, gestures, body language, the landscapes, extras. Someone who doesn't understand the language is not necessarily watching the wrong film but sees more of the film than others. Putting this added experience into the right words is an art that few have mastered better than Emine Sevgi Özdamar.

She came to Germany from Istanbul for the first time in 1965 and she understood – nothing. She once related that her first German word was "Haltestelle" (bus stop). She memorised it in order to make sure that she would get out at the right street on her way back. Of course this didn't work; in Berlin there were just too many placed called "Haltestelle".

In her novel "Die Brücke vom goldenen Horn" (bridge from the Golden Horn) she instead tells about her first German words as sounding like "shak, shak, eee and gak gak."  When she and her roommates from the rooming house went to buy eggs they had wiggled their bottoms and said "gak, gak" to the saleswoman. Much distance lies between this German and Özdamar's novels. These books are wonderful, because they convey the magic of learning a language. She writes in German, a language which holds no childhood for her. In contrast to Turkish, which still retains the enchanting power of early comfort, the lullabies and also the first triumph of saying "I", "I want". In contrast, life in Berlin gave her the opportunity to linguistically start from scratch as an adult. She learned German in a strange way, by memorising the headlines of the newspapers that hung in kiosks – without understanding a word.  When someone asked her "Niye böyle gürültüyle yürüyorsun?" (why do you make so much noise when you walk?), she would answer, for example with the memorised headline "Wenn aus Hausrat Unrat wird" (when belongings become trash).

Admittedly, her father later paid for a course at the Goethe Institute, where she learned German in the classical manner. However, one can readily assume that her own original learning method honed her sense of the language. For her, words have a body, a form, not only in terms of letters but also as spoken words, and especially as words that never reach those to whom they were addressed. In "Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn" she describes how Turkish men walked through wintery Berlin: "It looked as if they were walking behind the words that they spoke aloud. (...) They walked this way with their words, and to people who did not understand them, the men looked like people walking with a donkey or chicken through another country."
Also in her book "Seltsame Sterne starren zur Erde" (strange stars stare at the earth) the spoken word is not only heard but also seen. A passage describes a memory of a winter in an unheated shared apartment in Berlin, where breath condensed in the air: "When two of us stood in the doorways of two opposite rooms and talked to one another in the cold, I saw two breaths speaking with one another in the corridor. (...) When we all sat in the kitchen at the big round table and ate while talking with one another, I saw seven streams of breath form over the table, like the beams of light from seven pocket torches on a dark night."

For Emine Sevgi Özdamar language and loneliness go hand in hand. Language does not dispel loneliness but casts it in a strong light. She waves words about as you would a torch when searching for someone or something that might catch the light, she runs after words like men on snowy streets, aching with homesickness. When words take on a life of their own in an argument, when one word leads to the next, as the wonderful phrase goes, then the words around the kitchen table slice the air like scissors gone wild.

This author enables us to experience what a boon for literature a late-learned language can be, a "language without a childhood", without fully automated reflexes. If you can see and imagine as clearly as she does, then you are always somehow out of place. You see the foreign, regardless of where and when you became naturalised.

Whoever has read her "Die Brücke vom goldenen Horn" will never again be able to pass by the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin without recalling the words "insulted train station". This is what the women from the rooming house also call it, because the Turkish word for "broken" also means "insulted". The magnificent thing about the art of Özdamar is that she relishes in these unstable realms of language; she is anything but a hesitant, brooding wordsmith. She is fearless, willing to pick every apple from the tree of knowledge out of pure curiosity and zest for life.

Her magnificent books about her time in Berlin in the 1960s and 1970s describe the conquest of life, not only the mastery of a city. They are stories of a slow process of arriving, of landing, of wondering around in unfamiliar territory, of taking in the entire city. She virtually devours German theatre, her beloved Bert Brecht, whose plays she had already performed as a schoolgirl in Istanbul. Astounding how this young woman manages to overcome the inner border of the city, living in West Berlin while working at the Volksbühne in East Berlin with Benno Besson and Heiner Müller. She trumped all of us who considered the Wall to be an insurmountable obstacle. She would never have been satisfied with only half a city.

Berlin has taken on greater dimensions for me through the books of Emine Sevgi Özdamar; it has become more expansive, warmer. It is now all the more my home. For this I thank her.


This article was originally published in the Berliner Zeitung on 15 January 2012.

Harald Jähner is the head of the feuilleton of the Berlin Zeitung.

Translation: ls - let's talk european