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:
- Happy Birthday, Türke / Happy Birthday Turk (1985)
- Mehr Bier / More Beer (1987)
- Ein Mann, ein Mord / One Man, One Murder (1991)
- Kismet / Kismet (2001)
- Bruder Kemal / Brother Kemal (2012)
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’.
- 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.