Thanks to “Literary Encounter,” a programme initiated by Goethe-Institut Bangladesh, in cooperation with The Reading Circle, to introduce contemporary German literature in English translation, a discussion of The Dark Ship by Sherko Fatah was held at Goethe-Institut, Dhaka. Sherko Fatah, a prize-winning author who writes in German, was born in 1964 in East Berlin, to an Iraqi Kurd father and a German mother. He has received numerous awards: Aspekte-Literaturpreis, 2001, Ehrenpreis zum Deutschen Kritikerpreis, 2002, Hilde-Domin-Preis für Literatur im Exil, 2007, Großer Kunstpreis Berlin and Adelbert von Chamisso Prize 2015.
Awarding the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for his prior body of work, in particular for his novel Der Letzte Ort (The Last Place), the jury noted, "his books enrich intercultural literary writing through their brutally honest depiction of war and terror.” Fatah's novel, The Dark Ship (2015) , the translation by Martin Chalmers of the German novel, Das Dunkle Schiff (2008), depicts the terror of living under a brutal and repressive regime as well as the impossibility of a migrant's leaving a traumatic past behind. Though Kerim flees his homeland for Germany, as a discussant at the literary meet pointed out, the ugliness and the violence of his hometown follow him to Germany.
The book is in five parts, with a prologue – almost like a five-act play. The first part introduces Kerim and his father and describes their life in circumstances which become increasingly bleak and terrifying. The second part follows the death of Kerim's father, Kerim's abduction by a group of jihadists, his escape from them and his decision to flee to Europe. The third part – which justifies the title of the book – describes Kerim's journey in the hold of a ship and his almost miraculous escape. The fourth part is set in Berlin as Kerim strives for asylum. The fifth part, like the denouement in a tragedy, ends catastrophically for Kerim.
The prologue describes a seemingly ordinary scene – old women collecting greens from the hillside – but suggests the horror and futility that underlies the book.
It was a summer's day, hot, yet so windy that one couldn't really feel it. Dark shadows of clouds hurried across plains and slopes, as if airships were gliding through the deep blue sky. Perhaps it was the most beautiful day of his life, not because of the mild light and the gentle wind, no, on this sluggishly fading day he for the first time felt the deep peace which beauty grants, and at the same time discovered its futility. (1)
As the small boy watches, he hears the noise of a helicopter. When the helicopter comes into view, he sees two soldiers sitting in the open hatch. One waves at him; he waves back. Hoping that he can get a ride on the helicopter, he runs towards it, but the helicopter is too far for him to reach it. As he continues to watch, he sees the soldiers get down and herd the women into the helicopter. Disappointed that he could not get a ride, he still waves to the soldiers. Then, as he continues to watch, he sees the old women tumbling out of the helicopter. “There they were falling, one after another tumbled out of the hatch, arms spread out they gleamed in the light and, as if to halt them, the wind tugged at their clothes” (2). It is an understated description, reflecting the perspective of the child watcher.
Other scenes of horror and repression follow, some graphic, some understated. For example, one afternoon two men come to the diner. There is something striking about the two men and, seeing their Range Rover parked outside, Kerim realizes that they are not ordinary men. He hears then narrate stories about spies, boasting how they were discovered and one of them punished: “We played football with his head” (59). Though Kerim realizes there is something terrible about these two men, he admires the confidence of the older man, wants that confidence and freedom for himself. When the two men leave without paying, Kerim watches his father follow them and ask for his money. Instead of paying what they owe, they drive away, running over Kerim's father as he stands in the way. “Kerim saw only the dark-tinted panes, heard the roar of the engine and, immediately afterwards, the dull soft thud of the impact as the Range Rover struck his father” (62).
With the death of his father, Kerim has to carry on his father's business of running the diner. Even though he had not admired his father, the reader is aware of the significance of his father in Kerim's life: how his father had protected him and taught him how not to be afraid. With his father's death, he also has to take on his father's role of taking supplies to his grandparents. On the way to his grandparents' place, however, he is captured by a group of jihadists, called the Holy Warriors. Fascinated by their charismatic leader, simply called the Teacher, Kerim witnesses at first-hand what Islamists believe about jihad and martyrdom. Kerim manages to escape from the group after six months and returns to his family. He takes up where he has left off. (The reader is not told how or why Kerim left the group, only that he has brought back a lot of money in a bag that belonged to Rashid, one of the Holy Warriors.) However, he does not stay, but uses the money – how he got it is not explained at the time – to plan his escape. He contacts a tailor, whose name his father had given him in case he ever needed help. The tailor puts him in touch with traffickers who smuggle him across land to a port from where he has to journey by boat or ship.
The third part of the book details Kerim's journey by sea. The last few years have made all of us vividly aware of the plight of desperate migrants, of the horror of suffocation on board trucks or of drowning on overloaded, unsafe boats. Fatah's description vividly reveals the sufferings of migrants on board ship through tracing the experience of Kerim. Kerim believed that once he managed to stow away on a ship, it would be easy for him but it isn't. The hold is dark and claustrophobic. There is another stowaway in the hold and the two are discovered. The captain of the ship tells the two that though he sympathizes with them, there are laws and he cannot permit them to remain. The two are rowed over to an island from where Kerim manages to leave in a small fishing boat which has place for only one extra passenger.
In Germany Kerim starts the process of seeking asylum. He has to concoct a story. The real story should have been enough: the repressive regime, the brutal actions of the military, his abduction by Islamic militants, but, as one of the characters says earlier, Europe grants refugees permission to stay for different reasons at different times. Thus Kerim's narrative must meet the current requirements.
Unlike other refugees, who have no one in the country where they have sought shelter, Kerim has his uncle. He meets other compatriots who befriend him. He also meets a beautiful German woman named Sonja. Kerim had been in love with a girl back home, but it is Sonja with whom he first has sex. On evening, while on the long walks he had started taking, he sees some people skating on ice. He thinks he too can walk across the frozen lake. However, he doesn't see a warning sign that the ice is thin at that spot. As a result, he falls through the ice into the water. Sonja helps rescue him. She takes him home and helps him get dry and warm. Both are aroused and they have sex.
He becomes obsessed with Sonja, but memories of his violent past haunt him. Unable to adjust to his new country, he turns to the mosques in his adopted city. One day at prayer he is surprised to see Rashid. They do not speak to each other, and Kerim sees him leave with his new-found friend Amir. Memories of the past had haunted Kerim in his adopted land, but now he remembers the last time he had seen Rashid. They had been working together at a computer, uploading propaganda videos, when Rashid left the room. Finding himself alone, Kerim had wandered about the house and found a stack of money. Later, when he got an opportunity, he grabbed as many notes as he could, stuffed them into Rashid's bag and left. Kerim's reason for stealing is not clear – as his other thefts and betrayals are not. Thus, with Amir, he robs a man of drugs, on his own he robs an addict of a ring, which he then gives to Sonja.
The last chapter comes as a shocking climax to the narrative. Amir learns what Kerim did and sets out to punish him. He tells him, “You could have been a hero. But I know what you are – a thief and a traitor ” ( 307). Amir does what he has come to do and then stuffs the stolen packet of drugs in Karim's pocket.
After Amir leaves, Kerim lies on the ground, thinking of the Teacher and the Teacher's words. (A weak translation unfortunately detracts from what could have been poignant words: “The flowers are blooming so magnificently here in the snow as if next spring would never to [sic] come. . . . Along here, stay with me just a little while,” 308)
Though the book blurb describes the novel as telling “the story of the kind of trauma and striving that lead a man from religious extremism to a vain hope for redemption, ” Kerim was never a religious extremist. In fact, he had been indifferent to religion. His joining the Holy Warriors had been an accident. However, in his new home, he longs for a “purity of belief which would be a purity of life” (267). But the focus of the novel is not so much upon religion, on doubt and disbelief, as upon repression and indoctrination, the traumas of past experiences, which prevent one from ever escaping.
Sherko Fatah's The Dark Ship is an interesting book, describing life under a repressive regime, the pressures that lead people to migrate and the attempts of the asylum seeker to settle down in his new home. Through his vivid descriptions and graphic narrative, the writer brings the plight of Kurds vividly to light – but also casts a light on the plight of other refugees fleeing their conflict-torn homes. The scene of people skating on a frozen lake is reminiscent of a scene in Monica Ali's Brick Lane. However, in The Dark Ship it is just an incident which brings Kerim and Sonja together. In Brick Lane, the ice skating scene is symbolic. As Nazneen skates awkwardly in her sari, she becomes aware of a freedom that only life in the west can give. The Dark Ship promises no such freedom, no such happiness.
For the most part the book is immensely readable, but it is occasionally marred by poor translation. Some sentences seem out of place and some constructions are faulty. The translation could have done with some editing. I hope there will be a new edition with necessary corrections.
The reviewer is Advisor, Department of English, Independent University, Bangladesh, and a member of The Reading Circle.