Shortlisted for the German Book Prize, Necati Öziri’s Vatermal is a searing debut about family, trauma and coming to terms with the past. Its keen observations, striking imagery and skilled use of humour make this an immersive and memorable read.
Arda, a university student of Turkish heritage, is critically ill in hospital. As he waits for a prognosis, he begins to write his life story, addressing it to his father, Metin, who abandoned the family before he was born. Arda and his sister, Aylin, grew up in Germany without citizenship, meaning their childhood was marked by bureaucratic challenges as well as neglect by their mother, Ümran, who struggled to cope alone. While Aylin did her best to look after Arda, her relationship with Ümran gradually worsened until she left to live with a foster family.
Much of Vatermal concerns Arda’s teenage years, which he spent largely with a group of friends hanging around on benches. Öziri’s elegant prose captures the feeling of endless waiting, but also brings scenes to life through authentic dialogue and snippets of untranslated Turkish. At the same time, the reader gains a keen sense of the institutionalised racism and class-based discrimination that Arda faces in everyday life. At the age of eighteen, he is finally granted German citizenship and, having always dreamed of studying literature, proceeds to university. Only shortly after, he falls ill with liver failure.
This main narrative is interspersed with stories of Arda’s mother’s life and, later, what he learns about his absent father. Metin was a member of a left-wing revolutionary group, DevSol, and fled Turkey to avoid arrest. He later returned to hand himself in before starting afresh with a new family. Ümran, meanwhile, came to Germany as a teenager following an earthquake that destroyed her family’s livelihood; her parents moved first, leaving Ümran to care for her siblings under the guardianship of a conservative aunt. When she was finally reunited with her parents in Germany, she found her father already on his deathbed.
The various traumas that Arda, his family members and friends go through are handled with sensitivity and clearly inform their later choices. Öziri moves between past and present to give us a well-rounded sense of his characters, portraying their flaws in a sympathetic manner. Written with great humanity, lyricism and a quiet fury, Vatermal is a powerful debut from an exciting new talent in German literature.