In this heartbreaking Turkish novel based on the real-life sinking of a refugee ship during World War II, an elderly professor leaves America to revisit the city where he last glimpsed his beloved wife.
Istanbul, 2001. Maya Duran is a single mother struggling to balance a demanding job at Istanbul University with the challenges of raising a teenage son. Her worries increase when she is tasked with looking after the enigmatic Maximilian Wagner, an elderly German-born Harvard professor visiting the city at the university's invitation. Although he is distant at first, Maya gradually learns of the tragic circumstances that brought him to Istanbul sixty years before, and the dark realities that continue to haunt him.
Inspired by the 1942 Struma disaster, in which nearly 800 Jewish refugees perished after the ship carrying them to Palestine was torpedoed off the coast of Turkey, Serenade for Nadia is both a poignant love story and a gripping testament to the power of human connection in crisis.
Release date: March 3, 2020
Publisher: Other Press
Print pages: 416
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Listen to a sample
Serenade for Nadia
I’m settled in a roomy seat on the Frankfurt-Boston flight, sipping white port and listening to the sweet hum of the jet engines. I have no fear whatsoever of flying, I forget that I’m suspended in a metal tube at an altitude of over 26,000 feet, and all I care about is the quality of the wine and the food and the comfort of my seat. The cabin was darkened as soon as the meal trays were collected. Some passengers have put on sleep masks and nodded off; others have put on headphones and are watching movies on their personal screens. Someone watching a comedy laughs out loud, unaware of the noise he’s making. The elderly man in front of me can’t settle down, and his legs keep twitching.
The German flight attendants have finished collecting the dinner trays and are closing the blinds so the light won’t disturb the passengers when dawn breaks.
If you don’t want to be woken for breakfast, you’re supposed to put a sign on your headrest. But I, for one, have no intention of sleeping.
I’m writing this on my laptop, and will continue writing until we land in Boston. I have to finish writing my story before I arrive.
I’m not sure why, it’s just something I feel I have to do. The story has to end, I have to finish this task, and I can’t leave anything out. All the old grudges, all the suffering, all the terrible things we’ve done to each other have to be laid out in the open. We can never move forward unless we see ourselves for what we are, until we accept that we still live with the vestiges of our most primitive reptilian ancestors. There’s a crocodile lurking within all of us, just below the placid surface of our civility, ready to lunge at the first hint of threat, or opportunity. Perhaps, too, I just need some sort of catharsis. I won’t be able to move on until I’ve told the whole story.
I started my journey this morning in Istanbul, and had to change planes at Frankfurt, that labyrinthine city of an airport where no one lives and people only pass through. I waited in the long, slow line for non-EU citizens, and when my turn finally came I handed my passport, embossed with the star and crescent, to the stone-faced immigration officer. He typed all of my personal information onto his computer.
Name: Maya Surname: Duran Sex: Female
Date of birth: 21 Jan 65
He’s probably done the math and knows I’m thirty-six. Fortunately our religion isn’t listed on our passports, but I was sure this German immigration officer assumed I was Muslim because I had a Turkish passport. What else could I possibly be? Yet I also harbored three other women within me. I wasn’t just Maya; I was also Ayşe, Nadia, and Mari.
I would enter America with these four identities. And as soon as I was through customs, I would take a taxi straight to Mass General Hospital.
No one there would ask about my religion. And if they did, I had an answer ready. I was Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic. In other words, I was a human being.
All the flight attendants are tall, blond, and pretty, and their uniforms fit them perfectly. I’ve never seen a people who can both wear clothes the way the Germans do and go through an entire day without getting a single crease or wrinkle. No matter how carefully and elegantly I dress, I’m always disheveled and crumpled by the time I finish work, but that never seems to happen to Germans. Perhaps it’s the way they’re built, or perhaps it’s just a matter of posture and comportment.
Over the years I’ve entertained a lot of foreign guests at Istanbul University, and I’ve come to certain conclusions about people from various cultures. It may not be politically correct to generalize like this, but I’m seldom wrong.
One of the sleek flight attendants takes my empty port glass and asks in English whether I would like another.
“Yes, please. Thank you.” I’ve been fond of white port ever since my friend Filiz brought me back a bottle when she went to a medical conference in Portugal. Though I don’t come across it very often...
In fact I really don’t drink much. It was Ahmet who introduced me to wine. I didn’t like the taste at all, but I didn’t say so because I was in love with him. I suppose I got used to it over time. Oh, those first years! Ahmet seemed so different then, before the monster in him woke, when I still believed he was the kind of man I’d dreamed of, strong, but in touch with his feminine side.
If I’m jumping from one subject to another it’s not because of the port but because I’m in such turmoil.
Ahmet was tall and had brown hair, and I suppose you could say he was handsome. His eyes were a bit small and a bit too close together, but that isn’t as much of a defect in a man as it would be in a woman. We’re no longer married; we divorced eight years ago.
I had a lover (I suppose I should say boyfriend, no one says lover anymore), but I’ve left him behind with the rest of my memories of Istanbul. Maya has to be free; she can’t be constrained by any tie, by any relationship.
The flight attendant glides silently down the aisle with my port. I take a sip and close my eyes. Then I take off my high heels and put on those thick socks they give out. What a relief it is to free my feet. I know they’ll swell on this long flight, and I’ll have trouble putting my shoes back on, but it’s worth it.
The story I have to tell, or at least my part of the story, began three months ago, in February. February is the most miserable time of year in Istanbul. Cruel, cold winds blow in off the Black Sea, bringing rains that last for weeks. The days are short, you seldom see the sun, and spring seems impossibly distant. Occasionally the rain turns to snow, but never enough to cover the city in white. It just turns to slush, and then to ice. There’s mud everywhere, you can’t walk down the street without being splashed by passing cars. . . .
Anyway, it was a truly nasty day. I’d just dashed from the rector’s office to his official car, when I stepped into a puddle, possibly ruining a new pair of shoes. My phone rang just as I was settling into the back seat. It was Tarık. Without thinking, or even asking why he’d called,
I started complaining. About my job; all the paperwork I was drowning in; how I’d had to spend my morning talking to reporters and trying to put a good spin on some bad press; how the rector kept pestering me to write a speech for him; and how, on top of everything, I had to go out to the airport, in this weather, in the middle of rush hour, to pick up some foreign professor.
Even as I spoke, I realized I shouldn’t be talking to him this way. It was still a fairly new relationship, but we’d already developed “problems” and “patterns.” One of them was exactly this. He felt I had a tendency to launch into long litanies of complaint. He couldn’t get a word in edgewise. And so forth. This had already led to several arguments. But this time he didn’t seem annoyed. In fact it seemed as if he wasn’t really listening, and I guessed that he was following the stock market on the internet as he spoke to me. That was all he really cared about. Money. Not just having money and making money, but following it, keeping track of where and how it was flowing. He could talk about the markets for hours, and while I admired his dedication, which bordered on passion, I didn’t know or care that much about it. After a while it was as if he was speaking a foreign language and I couldn’t follow anything he was saying.
I kept complaining anyway, wondering at the same time how I was going to turn the conversation around and end it on a pleasant note.
“Is there anything else you want to whine about?” I made a face at the phone.
“That’s it. I’m done complaining. But you might be supportive instead of making snide remarks.”
Of course I hadn’t told him everything. I didn’t want to tell him about the stomach cramps I’d had for three days, or about how I’d had to rush to the pharmacy on my way to work because I’d left my tampons at home. That would probably be too much information for him.
“Who is it?” “Who is what?”
“The foreign professor? The one you’re going to meet at the airport.”
“Maximilian Wagner, apparently he’s at Harvard, his name sounds German but he’s American.”
“Why on earth is he coming here? Some kind of conference?”
“To tell the truth, I have no idea. I didn’t have time to read up on him.”
“OK, then. Good luck. See you later.” “Why did you call me?”
“I just wanted to know if we could get together later.” Then he hung up. They’re all the same. I wish I could meet a man who heard what I mean rather than what I say. Who’d understand that when I complain about the weather I’m not really talking about the weather. That when I complain about my job I mean that I need a man to comfort and support me. Do I have to come out and say that I’m fed up with my life? Why couldn’t he realize that I only talked about the rain because I couldn’t say I wished he were with me? If I have to ask him to hug me it defeats the purpose. It all seems so hopeless sometimes. By now, the driver, Süleyman, had brought the rector’s black car onto the highway. The highway was completely jammed; traffic wasn’t moving at all. But fortunately the car had official plates so we could use the emergency lane. I get so tired of living in such a crowded city—the seething masses of people everywhere—and having to sit in traffic for hours any time you go anywhere. People glanced at us with envy as we sped past, and I could see that some of them wanted to follow our example but didn’t dare risk the fine. Somehow I resented them, resented their presumptuousness, even though we were doing exactly what they wanted to do. But I wasn’t here because I wanted to be, and besides, I couldn’t survive in a city like this unless I had a few privileges.
“Why are you laughing, ma’am?”
Was the driver watching me? Keep your eyes on the road!
“Nothing, I was thinking about something and . . . ”
I wasn’t aware that I’d laughed, and realized I’d been laughing at myself, at my own self- righteousness.
“How much longer?”
“About twenty minutes,” he said. “But if we weren’t using the emergency lane we wouldn’t get there before midnight.”
Two traffic policemen watched us approach, wondering whether they should salute us or stop us and give us a ticket. As soon as they saw the official plates they realized we were members of the elite, and saluted us. What a wonderful country we live in! How easy everything is. As long as you have official plates, that is. I glanced at the information I’d been given about the man I was meeting. Law professor, German, single. Were there any single professors anymore?
Then I saw his birth date. 19 August 1914. He was 87. It must have been difficult for him to travel so far at his age. His wife had probably died, or they’d divorced. Though divorce wasn’t nearly as common in his time. Marriage was permanent, not temporary as it is now.
So it looked as if I was going to spend the next three days taking care of a frail old man. Maximilian Wagner was the last thing I needed right now. Why did he have to pick February of all times to come to Istanbul?
I could already imagine the first thing he would say. “I didn’t think Istanbul would be so cold. I packed for a desert climate.”
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