Jakob Arjouni’s Turkish-German Kayankaya series

I was delighted to hear that Jakob Arjouni’s Turkish-German investigator Kemal Kayankaya was going to feature on the Radio 4 ‘Foreign Bodies’ series, and to contribute a bit to the episode in question, as it gave me an excellent chance to re-read the Kayankaya novels and to get my hands on the latest instalment, Brother Kemal, published in Germany just this year.

In order of appearance, they are:

  1. Happy Birthday, Türke / Happy Birthday Turk (1985)
  2. Mehr Bier / More Beer (1987)
  3. Ein Mann, ein Mord / One Man, One Murder (1991)
  4. Kismet / Kismet (2001)
  5. Bruder Kemal / Brother Kemal (2012; translation due in 2013)

The first time I came across Kayankaya was in 1988, in the ‘foreign literature’ section of Borders on Oxford Street in London. The novel was Happy Birthday, Turk, which had been published in Germany in 1985, and had become a surprise critical and commercial hit. It was written by debut author Jakob Arjouni at the tender age of just nineteen.

It’s hard to overestimate how ground-breaking the figure of the Turkish-German P.I. Kemal Kayankaya was in the West Germany of the 1980s, when public attitudes towards the migrant workers who had helped to rebuild post-war Germany were deteriorating (‘job done, now please go home’). Asking German readers to identify with the likeable, wise-cracking, football-and-pickled-herring-loving Kayankaya directly challenged the dominant stereotype of ‘the Turk’ as a kebab-shop owner, rubbish collector or criminal who was poorly integrated into society and spoke only broken German. Kayankaya, the child of a Turkish migrant worker, is depicted as highly articulate, confident in his professional abilities, and – exceptionally for the time – as the holder of a West German passport, courtesy of his adoption by a German couple after his parents’ death. His characterisation thus deliberately up-ends the average German reader’s perception of what a Turkish person living in Germany ‘is like’, and confronts essentialist notions of German national identity. A Turkish-born person with a German passport? A Turkish-German citizen? Really?

Kayankaya’s early investigations, which fuse parts of the American hard-boiled tradition with the German Sozio-Krimi (sociological crime novel) of the 1970s, are used to expose the corruption of the state and to reveal the racism at the heart of West German society – the lingering legacy of National Socialism. The tables are thus deftly turned by Arjouni: the focus is on German criminal activity, and the crimes of Turks and other minorities are shown in the larger context of the unequal power-relations that exist within the state (for example, a ‘bad’ Turk is shown having been blackmailed into dealing drugs by corrupt police officers who threaten him with deportation should he not comply).

DVD cover of the film adaptation of Happy Birthday Turk (1991)

There’s also plenty of wise-cracking, acerbic humour. In fact, wit and sarcasm are shown to be key weapons when dealing with the tedious, casual racism the P.I. encounters as he goes about his daily business in Frankfurt.

Thus we are treated to the following classic exchanges:

  • German woman to Kayankaya: ‘You speak really good German!’
  • Kayankaya to German woman: ‘Thanks (long pause). You too’.

And…

  • German bureaucrat to Kayankaya: ‘Name?’
  • Kayankaya: ‘Kayankaya’.
  • German bureaucrat: ‘Spelling?’
  • Kayankaya: ‘Pretty good. Though I do have a little trouble with those foreign words’.

The Kayankaya novels are not necessarily perfect, but Kemal Kayankaya remains a ground-breaking investigative figure in the history of European crime fiction. A thoroughly original creation, he is used to raise some genuinely troubling questions about dominant social attitudes towards minorities. Many of the points the novels raise about social exclusion and about the uneven distribution of justice within society remain as pertinent today as in the 1980s.

Later novels in the series, as the ‘Foreign Bodies’ episode shows, engage with the seismic changes in Europe following the collapse of communism in 1989/90, and, most recently, with the tensions caused by Islamic fundamentalism (Brother Kemal).

You can listen to the ‘Foreign Bodies’ episode about Kemal Kayankaya, which features an interview with the author Jakob Arjouni, on BBC Radio iPlayer.

Image for PI Kemal Kayankaya

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22 Responses to Jakob Arjouni’s Turkish-German Kayankaya series

  1. Mark Fenemore says:

    Just heard this on the iplayer. Thought I recognized the authoritative commentator. Well done on spreading the word.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks, Mark – it was lovely to be involved in the series, and to help shine a bit of a spotlight on German-language crime (episode #2 on Durrenmatt as well). My feeling is that the series is raising the profile of Eurocrime very nicely; I’ve learned a lot from listening to the various episodes too!

  2. Blighty says:

    I heard this on Radio 4 and as a result have found your blog; thought the piece on Radio 4 was excellent, had never heard of this writer before and your blog is also a most welcome discovery, really enjoyed reading this post. Will spread the word to my nearest and dearest who are also Eurocrime enthusiasts (Kind Regards Blighty

    • Mrs P. says:

      Many thanks, Blighty.

      I’m really glad to hear that you enjoyed the ‘Foreign Bodies’ episode; it’s shaping up to be a grand collection of programmes, and it’s great that they’re going to be around for quite a while on BBC iPlayer. Delighted that you found the blog also; do come back lots – and I shall look forward to meeting your nearest and dearest too!

      Best wishes, Mrs. P.

  3. kathy d. says:

    I liked the Foreign Bodies episode, too. Your contribution was interesting. In fact, the whole series is quite good.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thank you, Kathy :) I’ve managed to listen to around two-thirds of the episodes and have still to get to the Martin Beck dramatisations. Enjoying all very much.

  4. kathy d. says:

    I could literally inhale these programs, endlessly.

  5. kathy d. says:

    I will be reading one of Arjouni’s books soon. A friend — who only reads mysteries in languages other than English, being prolific in about six — bought one by him, thinking it was in German, but not so. So I will benefit from this transaction. He was great on BBC4 so I look forward to reading whichever book it is.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Great! Do let me know what you think of it. Also: hugely admiring of your linguistically-talented friend and jealous of the wonderful access that his command of languages must give to international crime fiction…

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  7. Lauren says:

    Seems the logical place to post the rather sad news that I came across yesterday of Arjouni’s death:

    http://www.zeit.de/kultur/literatur/2013-01/jakob-arjouni-tot

    http://www.booktrade.info/index.php/showarticle/45160 (English article)

    As you said in your first post, not all of his books are perfect, but there’s some very interesting ideas and concepts. And there’s still a criminal (pun intended) lack of Turkish characters in German crime fiction generally, which emphasizes just how groundbreaking is work was.

    • Mrs P. says:

      This is very sad news, Lauren, and a real shock. He featured prominently in the recent Kayankaya episode of the ‘Foreign Bodies’ series, and sounded on such good form.

      Thanks for letting me know – I’ll put up a brief post later with those links.

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  9. Jose Ignacio says:

    Mrs. P actually it was your post which introduced me to Jakob Arjouni. And today I heard the sad news.

    • Mrs P. says:

      There was a large dose of chance involved in the production of that post, Jose Ignacio. Having read lots of Arjouni in the 1990s, there was a largish gap until last year when I was invited to contribute to ‘Foreign Bodies’. In preparation I re-read the whole Kayankaya series, and really loved having this excuse to immerse myself thoroughly in Arjouni’s world. As some have commented in response to my post of today – it felt like his crime fiction was on the brink of greater recognition via the Radio 4 series and the ‘No Exit’ reissues. I thoroughly hope that this is the case – but what a shame he can’t be here to enjoy that success. A sad day and a big loss.

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  15. Very sad that Arjouni passed away much too early.

    Out of curiosity I would like to ask if you have ever read any Turkish crime fiction? During my last holiday in Turkey I picked up a book by Turkish author Ahmet Ümit “When Pera Trees Whisper” and was surprised very positively. It’s part of a series centered around a team of the Istanbul Police Force and several of the books have been published in English already. My review: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=485

    • Mrs P. says:

      Hi Mytwostotinki. I’ve read a fair bit of Turkish-German crime fiction, but not Turkish-Turkish, if that makes sense. Esmahan Aykol’s Hotel Bosphorus features crime shop owner-private investigator Kati Hirschel (who is German, but lives in Istanbul), and Su Turhan has written a series featuring ‘Kommissar Pascha’, a Turkish-German police inspector who heads a Munich police unit investigating crimes committed against ethnic minorities. Both are very interesting in their own way.

      I’m hopping over to your review now to find out more about When Pera Trees Whisper. Thanks!

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