Defining Life As The Absence Of Death Is Not Enough

A Review of the Novel Gegen Morgen [Towards Morning] by Deniz Utlu

Week of the Festival: Hausacher LeseLenz, Hausach, Germany

Gegen Morgen by Deniz Utlu

(Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2019)

ISBN: 978-3-518-42898-6

Sometimes novels breathe in sentences which crystalize the very essence of the narrative. Everything happens. In this case: Gegen Morgen [Towards Morning]. Towards morning is almost day. Taking off between proximity. Clarification of clarity. Towards Morning is already today, not merely an invocation of that which follows. Drawing out the past with every narrated breath. Towards morning is also that which remains unsaid. Always and again. Composure nourished by everything which portends wisdom and scatters assumption: “For everything I do, there is another thing which I leave be.” Decisions are the noise of light: Paper cuts of air. Colors like tapestries of sound. The eye weaves in dissolves: The story’s bloodred narrative-eyelids. And the secret contest transforms conditions into conduct. Darkness embodied in light. This novel lives in both: in the struggle of words and hues and in the inky metamorphoses of recognition: “What is the optimal ratio between our shares of life and death?”

Kara, a young economist, is on his way to visit his girlfriend, Nadia, traveling from Berlin to Frankfurt by plane. Only the plane doesn’t arrive, but it also doesn’t crash-land in catastrophe. The catastrophe already exists. The plane careens uncertainly. And that suffices for a catalyst. The plane drops, drops away from fundamental motivations—in every living moment of Kara’s life. Drops into the novel. This turbulence displaces wor(l)ds and the perception of time. Kara is pulled into a stream of images and thoughts. Questions arise: Final questions. The de-formulation of life in the face of death. Who extends whom their hand? Death to life or life to death? “Life dissolves in symbols and I could no longer reassemble them in poetry,” Kara observes, as failure takes shape between love, indifference, and violence. And then there are Vince and Ramón, too. Nadia, Rahel, Ana, Michelle, Kai. A narrative community of relations: “Each individual’s kiss recalls their every other kiss before it; each kiss recalls humanity’s every kiss. And in each kiss repeat all the kisses of three million years of human history.”

Deniz Utlu is a poet among German-language novelists. Now he has published his second novel. A novel in which life’s nerve endings converge. The wondrous grief of reality. A presence of memory. And with it, the future. As though time were an inventive fiction to facilitate storytelling. Utlu peels language from everyday life. Delicately. Peeling it away out of the mundane. A visceral writing which thinks and feels like love—auditioning, spelling itself out in skin. Oration and encouragement. A book which echoes images. A kaleidoscope of inquiry: “What reasons do we have to be together? And what reasons to separate?”

Utlu draws his storytelling from the lyrical world with gravitas born of a vulnerable poeta ductus, providing an ongoing countervision to loss and deprivation. An ever-wondering gaze. Respectful as it is searching. A glance which reaches from the innermost constitution to the outermost occurrences. Inward facing thought vistas in translation. As compound eye, plural ear. And in the end, there still remains a truth: that of the storytelling. And this is rare. A talent for humility which Utlu masterfully commands. One needs no coarse words to give voice to failure or invoke renunciation. One needs only devotion. The growing power of imagination of those who know not to take themselves too seriously. Even when all else seems only like one forlornness among the forlorn: “I asked myself completely different questions back then. I was twenty-six. Was I still supposed to read ‘The Fable of the Bees’ with my students for another thirty years? Or should I move to a new country, learn a new language, make it my mother tongue? It wasn’t too late for that. There were examples of this: Those who not only moved to a different country, but into a new language. All roads lay at my feet. I could become a British architect—that I drank my tea black would reveal nothing of my past. A Chilean poet, a Cuban engineer, a guitar maker in Italy. I could be anything I wanted. And yet I kept on teaching, driving three or four times a week to the university, although each time I had the feeling of being a bit poorer equipped. Soon I would no longer be in my mid-twenties. I’d already counted as an adult in public statistics for some time. Finished. Standing on my own two feet in life. And yet I still hadn’t made the decision of whether I wanted to be an astronaut or carpenter, whether my mother tongue would be French or Mandarin—I needed to stop time.”

Utlu stops time. In sentences. His sentences are precious goods. They don’t simply follow life on the page. They write themselves in between. Between life and death. A tender writing. Floating on air. As though sounds and tones, noise and clamor could dress and undress themselves in colors. Colors which caress the truth of words. All but imperceptible, softer still. This book is a dream. A novel which believes it tells a story, and so becomes a meticulous work of poetry. A writing I can trust because, as reader, I entrust myself to it. Even when it hurts. A work which entrusts itself to me in its fragility, in its scarred tenderness. “Death is not exchangeable.” And neither is this book.

Translated into English by Jon Cho-Polizzi