Kismet

By JAKOB ARJOUNI

Jakob Arjouni’s Kismet is another of this surprising writer’s wonderfullyodd crime novels. Amid murders and explosions, for example, it contains thistimeless immigrant’s refrain:

“…every year I haveto go and beg to be allowed to stay another year. …I sit in that waiting roomwith all the other poor fools who’ve cleaned their shoes and put on cleanshirts…. when your turn finally comes you’re just a crumpled, stinking Thingand you’d almost agree with Herr Muller or Herr Meier if he looked at you as ifto say, what’s a pathetic creature like you doing in our lovely country?”

This could be 19th-centuryVienna. It is instead today’s Germany, vividly and bleakly depicted in thelatest novel in Arjouni’s investigator Kayankaya series.  

Arjouni, like KemalKayankaya, his not-so-hardboiled protagonist, is a German of Turkish origin. Andlike Kayankaya, he is also a mischievous subversive who delights in confoundingeasy assumptions—xenophobic or liberal—about his or any other immigrant’sethnicity. “…the Islamic scholar had picked me from the yellow pages onaccount of my name,” Kayankaya observes of one German client, “and ofcourse when we first met she had explained to me at length what the Turks werelike, myself included. Industrious, proud…secret rulers of Asia—in short, I wasa whole great nation in myself.”

Arjouni’s tone throughoutthe Kayankaya series is breezily cynical and his plots straightforward,although usually spiked with a subtle twist. In Kismet, the novel in which Arjouni first introduces the detective,and which is newly available to American readers in this paperback edition fromMelville House, Kayankaya is hired to scare off gangsters who are extortingprotection money from a Brazilian restaurant owner in Frankfurt. When the plangoes bloodily wrong, Kayankaya finds himself confronting a sinisterorganization, “The Army of Reason,” that emerged out of the Balkanwars and that threatens to disrupt Frankfurt’s diverse organized crime scene.”You had the feeling that a kind of criminal Olympic Games was going on inthe Frankfurt station district,” Kayankaya observes of the city’scompeting international gangs. He must also find a Bosnian woman who hasapparently been kidnapped by the criminal newcomers.

Withits snappy dialogue and rumpled heroes, Arjouni’s crime fiction owes an obviousdebt to American noir but it is equally reminiscent of many Eastern Europeansatirical novels.  The plot of Kismet may recall any number of gangsterromps, but the society so caustically depicted here is as recognizable as thatconjured up, for instance, by Jaroslav Hasek in The Good Soldier Schweik. Entering a bar in the dreary town of Offenbach,for example, the laconic Kayankaya observes of the drinkers, “Most of themwere around fifty and looked as if they had always been, as if they’d alwaysbeen hanging around in bars and only went out now and then to get cheap suitsand haircuts.” Two killers who are stalking Kayankaya walk with “…thoselong, confident everybody-listen strides that Berliners have…”

The violence too, althoughoccasionally cartoonish, is described with cinematic clarity but often shadedwith rueful afterthoughts. “If two men die and everything’s still the sameas before, or worse, then something’s wrong.” Kayankaya reflects after thecarnage of the novel’s opening scene, “Or I could have put it to myselfmore simply: I wished I hadn’t shot anyone.” Neither he, nor his creatorArjouni, lets this hero off the hook.

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