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If Philip Kerr has established Berlin as the capital of German noir, at least for English readers, Jacob Arjouni makes an fine case for his own Frankfurt and he does it in German to boot. Happily, he has an excellent translator in Anthea Bell and a committed publisher in Melville House so that English readers need not feel deprived.
Arjouni's private eye is Kemal Kayanaka. Kemal is ideally suited for the role of noir protagonist as he is at once an insider and an outsider to German society. An insider because he was brought up in Germany by German parents, an outsider because he was the orphaned child of Turkish parents. He has the name and the appearance of a Turkish immigrant, without actually speaking a word of Turkish.
His name draws a certain kind of business in a city that is superficially at least uptight and law-abiding. Although his clients would generally be averse to admitting it, they do suspect that a Turk might be more amenable to cutting legal corners than might a "real German." It doesn't do Kemal much good to remind them that he actually is a "real German," since the only effect that has is to cause them to look embarrassedly into space.
In BROTHER KEMAL, he is approached by Valerie de Chavannes, the well-dressed daughter of a financier, to locate her own sixteen-year-old daughter Marieke and bring her home. Marieke has gone off to be with an underground photographer she met at home where he was a dinner guest of her mother's. He is charming, raffish, and, oh, yes, Muslim, though not especially pious. Marieke, daughter of an artist, is attracted and, before you know it, she's run off with Abakay and Mme de Chavannes is distraught.
Naturally, there is more to all this than meets the eye and Kemal's life becomes even more complicated when he takes on the job of providing security to a prominent Moroccan author, a guest at the Frankfurt Book Fair, who has been receiving threats as a result of his most recent novel, in which the protagonist is gay. The book is being read as the author's coming-out document, an interpretation he stoutly denies.
Kemal is a man who is willing to take decisive, if not always wise, action to resolve his clients' difficulties, though these are actions he undertakes within certain ethical limits. He is also one who takes a long and sardonic view of the social circles in which his clients move, in this case the stultifyingly bourgeois quarter occupied by Mme. De Chavannes on the one hand and the shrill publishing politics of the Book Fair on the other.
Arjouni's protagonist is delightfully skilled at wrong-footing the blundering "real Germans" who betray their unreflective prejudices without being aware of what they are saying. The reader might attribute this ability to Arjouni's own experience, but that is not precisely the case. "Jakob Arjouni" is a pseudonym. The author, Jakob Bothe, was the echt German son of a prominent German playwright, Hans Günther Michelson. Still, he identified closely with his hero: "I could never have written so naturally about Kayankaya — a Frankfurter with Turkish parents and a bent for certain surroundings — if I hadn’t been him, up to a certain point," he said in an interview with an Austrian critic, Christian Seiler.
More than ten years separates BROTHER KEMAL from the previous novel in the series but, sadly, there are no more adventures to come. When he learned that he had pancreatic cancer, Arjouni returned to his private eye and raced to finish the book before he died, which he did in January of this year at the age of 48.
But there is nothing haunted or despairing about the book he has left us. It is cool, witty, and entertaining, with just enough social comment to give it substance. It even ends on a more hopeful note than most hard-boiled private eyes enjoy. It imagines a different future path for Kemal, a future that must remain unrealized.
Knowing that there will be no further Kemal Kayankaya adventures, I plan to go back to the beginning and read the previous four novels which, happily, Melville House has returned to print. Anyone with a fondness for noir should consider doing the same.
I am told that Melville House has established the Arjouni Fund to Fight Pancreatic Cancer in his honour to which part of the proceeds from this novel will be directed.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2013
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