Monday, May 16, 2011

International Noir: KISMET, from Jakob Arjouni

Hurrah for the passion of translation that's bringing eccentric characters and fresh predicaments to the crime novel. And another hurrah for Melville International Crime, an imprint of Melville House Publishing (born in Hoboken, NJ, now living in Brooklyn, NY) -- where translations are erupting faster than seasons.

KISMET, by Jakob Arjouni, had its US debut in 2010 from Melville Crime. The translator from the German is Anthea Bell, who filled the gap in a series that's been otherwise translated by US poet Anselm Hollo, well tuned to the quirks of this unusual detective. Kemal Kayankaya has a Turkish name and heritage, but he was raised by Germans in Frankfurt. Thanks to his name, he's well acquainted with racism in today's Europe. Maybe that's why he bonds so readily with friends who've endured being "different" -- like the Brazilian restaurant owner Romario.

In fact, it's Romario's fault that Kayankaya and his old buddy Slibulsky are hiding in a china cupboard in the restaurant, wearing bulletproof vests, sweating, and inhaling each other's most potent bodily fragrances ... while waiting to protect Romario from a shakedown by a newly arrived set of thugs whose ethnic sort hasn't yet been determined.

What the thugs are, though -- silent, faces powdered in white, blond wigs, white suits -- is members of the Army of Reason: brutal, swift, and giving very few extra chances. Poor Romario lost a thumb to the thugs at their first visit. So is it any surprise that on this second try, the violence escalates immediately to deadly? Well, it's a surprise to Kayankaya. Private detective that he is, killing criminals hasn't come up before. Or disposing of their bodies, either.

This gritty, urban, and somehow very funny detective novel sorts out Bosnians from Croats, native Frankfurters from Berliners, and men from women, frustrating and delicious though they can all be. I'd hate to mention how many "scheduled chores" somehow slipped off my list while I burrowed into KISMET. Trying to recall what the word means? It's Turkish (from Arabic) for fate, or destiny. What could this string of uncomfortable situations bring out for Kayankaya? Is it destined to end as darkly as it's begun?

KISMET is the first Arjouni crime novel that Melville International Crime brought out, but there's more of the series already available: Released in February of 2011 was Happy Birthday, Turk!; coming in June are More Beer and One Man, One Murder. (All three of these are translations by Anselm Hollo.) If you like the dark detective and a hearty dose of entertainment, you'll probably want them all -- I know I do, and so will Dave when he gets started.

A note for collectors: Thanks to the helpful folks at Melville House Publishing, I think I've got the sequence of US publishing for the Arjouni crime novels more or less straight. But there are a lot of varied titles: One Man, One Murder was previously released as One Death to Die (a hardcover on the Kingdom Books shelves), and More Beer was earlier titled And Still Drink More.  Don't get me started on the UK releases (where Kismet came out in 2009), or the German ones of course. And technically, KISMET is the fourth in the Kayankaya series. Sigh.

About the author: In Europe, Jakob Arjouni (born in Frankfurt in 1964) is noted for his award-listed novel Magic Hoffman. He's the son of a playwright. And his four books about private detective Kemal Kayankaya are the most popular, and have been awarded the German Thriller Prize. He lives in Berlin and Languedoc.

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