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Selim Özdoğan: Die Tochter des Schmieds (The Blacksmith’s Daughter)

As you may know, I have divided up my books by nationality. This has at times caused problems as, more and more often, writers may have more than one nationality. This is not, of course new. I wonder how many people realise that Saul Bellow was born in Canada. (I wonder how many people realise that Ted Cruz was also born in Canada, but that is not relevant here.) T S Eliot and Henry James are also said to be US writers but they were British citizens and spent much of their adult life in England.

Germany has quite a few published writers whose families came from other countries – Central Asia, Eastern Europe and, in particular, Turkey. (I would add – and this is also irrelevant – that the German national football team has recently had players whose families were from Africa, Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey.)

Özdoğan was born in Germany but is clearly of Turkish descent and nearly all of this novel is set in Turkey. It is the first book of a trilogy called the Anatolian Blues Trilogy.

Necmi is a blacksmith and he and his wife have two children, Timur and his younger sister, Hülya. We follow their childhood and, in particular, an operation on Hülya. Hülya’s feet pointed inwards, the big toes touching, and no one who saw them thought she’d grow out of it. On the visit to Ankara to get the plaster removed, Timur accompanies his father and sister and gets a taste for the big city which will continue into adult life.

Timur follows in his father’s footsteps and soon become an accomplished blacksmith. He had known Fatma, an orphan, since she was young and, fortunately, both he and his mother agreed on her as a wife for him. As his father has died, he takes over the blacksmithing business. With clashes between his wife and mother only partially removed, they decide to move to a village, where Timur does well, not only with his blacksmithing but by selling the fruit and vegetables he and his neighbours grow and the carpets Fatma weaves.

The couple have three children – Gül (it means rose), Melike (it means queen) and Sibel. Everything seems to be all right till it isn’t. Timur gets in a dispute with a villager, Turfan, over selling vegetables and typhoid strikes the village, killing Fatma. He almost immediately remarries Arzu – a young woman of nineteen who had previously been married to a much older, impotent man. Meanwhile having neglected the business with his own typhoid and that of Fatma, the villager, Turfan has been able to spread malicious rumours about him.

The family decide to move into the town. Gül initially finds it difficult to fit in. She has to spend more time helping at home, particularly when Arza produces first a baby girl, Nalan, and then a baby boy, Emin. She feels more and more that her stepmother does not like her. She wishes Arzu would sometimes call her my rose or darling or treasure, she wishes she could sleep in a warm room in the winter, she wishes her parents didn’t argue. She doesn’t know what they argue about; she just notices they’ve been arguing . We later get Arza’s perspective, who feels unappreciated for the work she has to do to bring up another woman’s children and look after a not always easy husband.

When Gül fails her school certificate, she is apprenticed (unpaid) to a dressmaker. Though she is not yet fifteen, she is also getting marriage proposals or, rather, her father is on her behalf. She rejects them all and her father allows her to make the decision.

While all this is going on, Özdoğan keeps giving us glimpses into the future. We know when Timur will die and what his last words will be. We know that Gül will go to Germany and work in a factory sewing bras. When Gül starts smoking, we know how long she will continue to smoke. There are several examples of this.

We continue to follow Gül’s story. She cannot marry the man she wants so she settles for second best, a relative of Arza, called Fuat. He goes off to his twenty-four month military service soon after they are married, and Gül is left with her in-laws, doing much of the work in the house. When he returns, the marriage is far from ideal. He is happier spending his time drinking and gambling with his friends than paying attention to his wife and, subsequently, to his daughters. We know, as mentioned above, that the family will end up in Germany, as a lot of Turks did.

While Özdoğan gives us a rich array of characters, as the title tells us, the focus is on Gül. She is a strong and determined girl, then woman. She know what she wants but, unlike her somewhat greedy, demanding husband, she knows that, in this life, most of us have to work for what we want. She is prepared to work but she is not prepared to be taken advantage of. She can be pushed but only so far and is not afraid to stand up for herself when she considers it necessary.

Again, like most of us, she is a child of her time and that means, in Turkey of the period (after World War II), she, like other women is subject to male control and conformity to custom. (While no date is given, we know what new films Gül sees. There are also two datable events – the overthrow of Adnan Menderes (1960) and the assassination of JFK (1963).) Women are beaten by men – Fuat is hit by Gül – and it is accepted and, indeed, even expected. Similarly, an unmarried woman cannot be seen in public with an unmarried man though that seems to change, as Gül’s sister is criticised for travelling on a train in the same compartment as men but, despite the criticism she does and it seems to be more acceptable.

Ultimately, while Gül is controlled by custom and by the men in her life, particularly her father and husband, she is still determined to have a certain degree of independence and be her own woman. What ultimately happens to her is doubtless explained in the subsequent books of the trilogy (which have not (yet (been translated into English) – Heimstraße 52 [52 HeimStrasse] – it’s their address in Germany and Wo noch Licht brennt [Where Light Still Burns].

Publishing history

First published in 2005 by Aufbau
First English translation in 2021 by V & Q Books
Translated by Ayça Türkoğlu and Katy Derbyshire