V&Q Books – launched in the Autumn of 2020 to bring “remarkable writing from Germany” – has, with its Spring 2022 batch, reached double digits. My favourite so far is the first in Özdogan’s Anatolian Blues trilogy, The Blacksmith’s Daughter. So it should come as no surprise that the second instalment, 52 Factory Lane, simply jumped into my hands, demanding to be read NOW! I was in no mood to argue.
Translated from German by Ayça Türkoglu and Katy Derbyshire
52 Factory Lane begins as Gül arrives in Germany to join her Gastarbeiter husband, Fuat. Her two young daughters are to stay in Turkey until such time as Gül and Fuat have made enough money to bring them over. This means that initially Gül’s time in Germany is filled with an overwhelmingly aching heart, for not only does she miss her daughters, but also the sunshine, and all the Turkish foods. There isn’t much of a relationship with Fuat either, who is hell bent on making money, working night shifts for extra payment. Eager to get Gül earning too, he finds her a number of factory jobs, where she works “schwarz” – as an illegal. The pay is atrocious, and conditions can be humiliating. When there is an unannounced inspection in the chicken factory, Gül is unceremoniously bundled into a freezer …
Gül, however, has a sense of her own worth; she is a good worker, and gradually things improve, especially when she finally susses the way through German bureaucracy, and gets the correct paperwork. She is supported by her female friends, many in marriages worse than hers. Fuat may have succumbed to gambling and the demon drink, but heis no wife-beater. He also insults her continually for the size of her girth, but eventually she finds the perfect comeback. You have to admire her patience, her large heart, her resilience, her fortitude.
The years in Bremen pass quickly, with the continual back and forth between Germany and the homeland. For Gül and the family that means long, hot summers in sunny, warm Anatolia, once they’ve survived each eventful (and often hilarious) journey. Here the couple buy land and build their own house. Yet when the time comes to move permanently, life proves not to be so simple. There’s a saying that once you’ve left a place, you can never go back, and Gül discovers home is neither one place, nor the other. With Fuat returning to Germany to continue earning and her elder daughter married and settled there, the country that Gül once considered a cold, disorienting place, exerts an unexpected tug.
As if the country were a magnet with still enough pull, even when the call of money has long since fallen silent … As though the country were a drug you can never kick. A curse you can’t shake. a promise you don’t want to forget. Or a comfort you wouldn’t want to go without. Perhaps a home, too, where you value the orderly calm, even though you long for exuberance and warm chaos.
And it does that despite Gül having lived in what is essentially a bubble of Turkish migrants. There are few German characters, and those few are sympathetically drawn. Özdogan’s pen is an affectionate one, and his focus very much on the domestic. He will find the good in everyone, but neither does he gloss over flaws. While Gül grapples with culture shock in a foreign land, I witness masculine behaviours I consider abusive, but which the Turkish women tolerate. Well, those of Gül’s generation (with one exception) do. I have an inkling though that things might change in the final installment, as Gül’s daughters, obedient but, through schooling, more exposed Western ways, may turn out to be less submissive.
I wasn’t as charmed by 52 Factory Lane as by The Blacksmith’s Daughter (mainly because the blacksmith only made sporadic appearances) but I was amused by comparisons between Gul’s experience and my own. Despite the winters, which can be perishing, I don’t think of Germany as cold. But then I hale from more northern climes and lived in central Germany, where I found the summers hot. Neither have I been to Bremen. (But I’ll heed the warning and take a pullover, when I do go. Hopefully this summer.) I recognise the habit of stuffing the suitcase with delicacies from home when travelling back to Germany. Those were the days before supermarkets had ethnic shelves. So while Gül packs her cases with bulghur, pepper paste and pine nuts, what did I import from Lancashire? Boxes and boxes of P G Tips! (It took me years to find a decent blend in Germany.)
I’m looking forward to volume 3, as I want to know whether Germany will succeed in taking complete possession of Gül’s heart.