Aydin, set in a newly reunified Berlin, is the story of a young Muslim who is at odds with his religious parents, obsessed with an alluring yet vulnerable woman, and entangled in the underground world of drugs and fight clubs. The debut novel of Abdussabur Kirke is written in the first person and while it falls easily into the classic genre of the bildungsroman – and is set some 30 years ago – the writer captures some of the most urgent themes of contemporary life with ease and authenticity.
Before reading the novel I was intrigued by the idea of navigating Berlin, in the wake of reunification, from the perspective of a second-generation immigrant. It’s rare that the fall of the Wall and the experiences of the gastarbeiter coincide in books, film or popular culture, yet one has the sense that there is much to be reflected upon. While the historic moment is associated with euphoria, according to journalist, Erkan Arikan, the Wall’s fall did little for Germany’s guest-workers and their children, particularly in terms of integration. “People in both the east and the west fell by the wayside. And many of them were migrants, who were abandoned during the unification process. My impression is that the integration of guest workers was simply shelved. Voters in the former East who were now supposed to have a better life were suddenly more important than the integration of people with foreign roots into this new, united German society” writes Arikan.
While Aydin is unmistakably set in this milieu, the novel focuses less on political shifts and instead provides the opportunity to see through the eyes of a strange, rebellious protagonist who is often reckless in his attempts to protect himself from the pain and disappointment of the real world. Kirke creates a brash atmosphere from the first paragraph and pulls the reader through a series of conflicts, choices and discoveries that are entwined with weighty themes such as identity, faith, family, loyalty, first love, incarceration, prostitution, addiction and friendship. These themes are never contrived and the book is exciting and compelling.
The novel is not without reference to the past, through the inclusion of the character Count Heinrich von Weser, an aging aristocrat who runs a hospice and whose personal background includes resisting both the Nazis and the Communists. Kirke moves between the worlds of the now mostly forgotten aristocracy and the brutality of prison life with great skill, creating encounters that are visceral and cause the reader to reflect.
Aydin is a wonderfully immersive novel – a meditation on the beguiling promises of the criminal underworld, the chaos of youth, finding hope and learning what it means to move with one’s destiny.