There is a happy hustle and bustle in the shopping mile of Istanbul. The successful author Ahmet Ümit signs his latest novel in a bookstore; the queue of excited readers weaves out of the store and in long loops down Istiklal Boulevard. Hundreds of mostly female fans have come to the book signing, many have been waiting for hours. No problem, says one reader; if necessary, she will wait all day to get her book signed: “Land of the Lost Gods”, that is Ümit’s latest novel – and his declaration of love to Berlin.
Ahmet Ümit is one of Turkey’s best-selling writers; in his cultural thrillers he interweaves sensitive topics of Turkish history and society with criminal cases. His most famous character is Chief Inspector Nevzat, who German readers know from the novel “The Gardens of Istanbul”. Ümit has created a new character for “Land of the Lost Gods”: the German detective Yildiz Karasu. It was a risk, the author says in an interview with the Tagesspiegel. “It’s pretty dangerous introducing a new protagonist when you have a character like Nevzat – it’s like trying to replace Sherlock Holmes with another detective.”
Especially when the new character is a woman, and a German one at that, albeit with Turkish roots. “I was pretty nervous whether my readers would accept that,” says Ümit. “But to my happy surprise, they are enthusiastic.” Commissioner Yildiz Karasu and her assistant Tobias Becker are investigating for the criminal police in Berlin, because that’s where the novel is set – a huge leap for Ahmet Ümit and his readers, because his crime novels were previously set in Turkey .
The author explains that he had been thinking about writing a novel about Berlin ever since he fell in love with the city on a reading tour through Germany in 2005. “Berlin is a special city for me,” says Ümit; on the one hand because it is a cosmopolitan city, but on the other hand because of the Holocaust memorial. “Berlin is a city that faces its past, that can admit its guilt,” says Ümit. Turkey has not yet managed to do this, although it needs it. “It makes a society healthier and more democratic and humane. That’s Berlin, and that’s why I love this city and wanted to write about it.”
Culture of remembrance is a recurring motif in Ümit’s work; in his Turkish novels he dealt with the fate of the Armenians or the pogroms against the Greek population of Istanbul. “Land of the Lost Gods” is also about the shadows of the past that lie on the present: German archeology in the Near East, the Third Reich and neo-Nazis, guest workers and integration in Germany and the fall of the Wall. The focus of the plot is the Pergamon Altar – and a series of creepy murders in Berlin that Commissioner Yildiz Karasu has to solve.
Ümit has researched the location of Berlin just as thoroughly as the historical background. In order to write the novel, he lived in Berlin for several months a year for ten years and bought an apartment there on Heinrich-Heine-Strasse, he says. “I wanted to know everything exactly: what winter is like there or autumn, what the food is like, what makes German culture so special.” Of course, life in Berlin wasn’t just research work, it was a lot of fun for him.
With his detailed descriptions of the neighborhoods and streets of Berlin, Ümit proves that he knows the city in the novel – and he makes his readers want to get to know it for themselves. “At book signings, the readers often tell me: We now want to travel to Berlin and visit the locations where the novel is set,” says Ümit. Namely in Kreuzberg, Mitte, Neukölln, Treptow, Charlottenburg, Dahlem, Rudow and on the Teufelsberg. The inspectors like to get their food from Curry 36 and meet witnesses in the Leylak at Kottbusser Tor and in the Cafe am Neuen See ‘ says Ahmet Ümit.
It is precisely this interest that he wanted to arouse with his novel. “Because just as the German view is limited to the Turkish immigrants, there are also barriers in our view of Germany and German culture,” he says. “Breaking down these barriers is a task of culture.” However, German readers will have to wait for these insights, because no German publisher has so far been interested in “Land of the Lost Gods”.