Kismet by Jakob Arjouni

My excuse for picking out this book was that I was searching for something my significant other, who likes crime and thrillers and Germany, might enjoy. This is a detective thriller from Germany. But, having been wrong before to rely on mere signposts rather than evidence, I chose to read it before gifting it.

Alas, the book was not one I would gift. I have relayed the basics (German, crime, thriller) to my one and only, she can choose to read it or not. I am not vested nor am I risking my credibility as a book recommender. The last time I tried this (vetting before wrapping a potentially gift-worthy detective novel) the novel also failed to grip me, so no gift. My ambivalence in making her aware of that one proved wise. She abandoned it. She will probably make it through this one, if she tries it. Still, I am done scavenging for recent release detective fiction that, in some way, can be linked to the literary.

The story begins with protagonist Kemal Kayankaya and a gentleman named Slibusky “crammed into the china cupboard, emptied for the purpose, of a small Brazilian restaurant on the outskirts of the Frankfurt railway station district, waiting for a couple of racketeers to show up demanding protection money.” Kayankaya wise-cracks his way through the wait to the confrontation, noting Siblusky’s smell and the ridiculousness of two grown men hiding in a china cabinet.

This small job, which Kayankaya assumed would require only scaring a couple of low-level punks, turns into something much bigger. The Frankfurt mafia/gang scene soon becomes the focus of Kayankaya’s single-detective agency.

The reason I am not a good reader of this type of crime thriller is that I find jarring the deux ex machina of an author who noticeably intrudes in the story to save his protagonist from that protagonist’s own incredibly bad and entirely unlikely decisions.

A momentary digression: I love The Usual Suspects in which Verbal tells the police detective a tale about an elusive and sinister man named Keyser Soze. Verbal has been arrested, he has to convince the police that he is more victim than perpetrator. In other words, he did not walk into the police station just for kicks, to see what would happen. Moreover, he escapes by his own sharp wits rather than the convenient dullness of his would-be murderers.

Kayankaya’s thought process seems to be: “What is the course of action most likely to end with my body being discreetly disposed of by powerful criminal organizations who do not hesitate to chop off the fingers of shopowners or start gun battles in the streets? Then I will do that and hope for the best.” Of course, with the author on his side, the best usually happens, in the long run. There are, I am told, four of these. I won’t be verifying the claim.

It is interesting (dismaying?) to me that German audiences are, apparently, as immune to ridiculousness in plots as are Americans. Though the thriller does seem to provide a glimpse into modern German culture, I am sure Jenny Erpenbeck, Martin Walser, Eva Menasse, or any number of other contemporary authors provide a more nuanced and insightful depiction of German life. For that matter, I am still slow getting to Thomas Mann and his Magic Mountain. (Footnote to self: Significant dread at tackling the monster suggests Rat’s Chance in Hell Challenge.)

Kismet uncovered for me pitfalls several book-selection pitfalls to which, it appears, I am not immune. First, relying solely on the translator (the esteemed Anthea Bell) is insufficient for ensuring that a particular translated work will match your or a beloved’s taste. Second, that a particular publisher (the also esteemed Melville House) prints the book does not mean, again, that you and the novel will run through flowered fields holding hands. Third, when you know you tend not to find a particular genre satisfying, do not keep blasted trying with unknown, unproven books/authors. Instead of reading books that I know I likely won’t love but hope my intended giftee might like, I should gift books that I love and that she might like. I will let her recommend to me those books from her favorite genre that she loves. Passing mediocre books back and forth would be idiocy. Luckily, I am the only idiot in the house.

So, I did not fall in love with the book. If you do not mind a few absurdly irrational choices by your protagonist for the purpose of an adrenaline rush, then this could be up your alley. For a more positive, less curmudgeonly review, there is always the Washington Post (very possibly to blame for putting this on my radar…though I kept thinking it was a blogger in my sidebar, it wasn’t) or The Independent. Better though, try a blogger who gives a nice, objective overview of the entire series, highlighting both the positives and the negatives.

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11 Responses to Kismet by Jakob Arjouni

  1. marco says:

    Der Zauberberg is scheduled for Tuesday 22 November in my Tumblr:

    Ein einfacher junger Mensch reiste im Hochsommer von Hamburg, seiner Vaterstadt, nach Davos-Platz im Graubündischen. Er fuhr auf Besuch für drei Wochen.
    Von Hamburg bis dort hinauf, das ist aber eine weite Reise; zu weit eigentlich im Verhältnis zu einem so kurzen Aufenthalt.

    Hope your translation is good; I’ve heard bad things about Mann’s English translations.
    For all its orgy of themes and symbols and the overarching motif of sickness and paralysis Der Zauberberg is very funny in places and the prose is always lively and interesting.

    • Kerry says:

      Well, my German is absolutely pathetic, so any translation has to be better than me. But thanks for the reminder to always research which translation to read/buy.

      You almost have me looking forward to Magic Mountain….

      The dread partly comes from my experience with A Death in Venice. That didn’t go down too well at university. I understand this is different and I surely am, so hopefully Mann will be a more enjoyable experience during my second course.

  2. winstonsdad says:

    I love the cover of this book ,all the best stu

  3. Emma says:

    Are you aware that November is German Lit Month co-hosted by Caroline(http://beautyisasleepingcat.wordpress.com/german-literature-month-november-2011/) and Lizzy (http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com) ?

    You might find interesting ideas for German literature. (Week 2 is dedicated to crime fiction. My recommendation: avoid Fitzek)
    Caroline posted on women writers and she makes links to other reviews.

    • Kerry says:

      I was aware (Lizzy’s initial post was featured in my Favorite Lit-Blog Things), though I didn’t think to mention it in this post for several reasons. Still, thanks for bringing it to my (and others’) attention again. In fact, checking back over to see the progress, I am going to read Fontaine’s Effie Briest because it is Lizzy’s “desert island book”. Then, maybe, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and, as you say, there are a wealth of ideas and enticements for more current German literature.

      Out of curiosity, is your recommendation to avoid Fitzek based on your own estimation or your assumptions regarding its appeal to me (which assumption would be correct, based on the description)?

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      • Emma says:

        I can only second the recommendation for Effi Briest. Brilliant though I’d take Proust on a desert island. It’d last longer.
        I’ve read Fitzek for the German lit month. So bad I didn’t review it. Lizzy loved it though.

      • Kerry says:

        Excellent. I am eager to start in on Effi Briest now. Sorry to hear about Fitzek.

  4. William McIllvanney is my general tip for literary crime, but I haven’t reviewed any on my blog I’m afraid.

    Otherwise, noticeable author intrusions, character decisions made for the sake of plot rather than internal logic, not good. Not one for me at all, and I like crime.

    As you say Anthea Bell and Melville House are both excellent indicators of quality. I’ll have to follow your final link, since I can’t believe they would back something they didn’t believe in, but that doesn’t mean we have to similarly believe. This clearly will have its readers, but I doubt I’ll be among them.

    On an unrelated note I share your fear of The Magic Mountain.

    Anyway, nice review, but I tend to think if one isn’t a fan of a genre the odds on liking a book squarely within that genre are generally pretty low. There’s SF I might recommend to non-sf fans for example, but solid mainstream sf novels would generally not be among them however good those books might be as sf.

    • Kerry says:

      Max,

      Thanks for the William McIllvanney recommendation. I will put that on my list of books to read.

      Kismet was not painful to read, but I never got the sense, as Melville House describes it, that “Try as he might, Kayankaya just can’t seem to stay out of [the criminal organization’s] way”. In fact, I would say I had the sense that he kept intentionally (and rather unbelievably) getting in their way. If it only happened once, maybe that isn’t such a big deal, but it jolts me out of any thrills when it is clear that the author is (a) shoving his character into danger and (b) won’t let his lead get killed. My pulse cannot race under such circumstances.

      You are absolutely right, however, about non-genre readers falling in love with genre books. The odds are not good. Which returns me to my main point in writing the post, I will continue to rely on genre recommendations from people who know the genre and my reading tastes.

      And, this reminds me: I still have some SF to read.

      Finally, thank you for commiserating on (my possibly irrational) fear of Magic Mountain.

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