“I remembered one of the last things my grandmother said to me before she died. She told me that I would encounter people who want to harm me as well as people you wanted to help me, that I shouldn’t allow my view of the world to be colored by either and that I should be wary of both.” [Maya]

This unashamedly romantic and poignant historical novel is one to get lost in. The joy and pain of a brief tragic love affair reverberate across borders and decades, it’s quite the emotional rollercoaster. Ultimately the love story says much about the beauty and perseverance of the human spirit; loyalty, love and facing up to loss.

However, there’s a darker commentary on man’s inhumanity here too, a thread that also stretches across time, (do we ever learn lessons from history?) This novel confronts genocide and dictatorship in twentieth century Europe, drawing some parallels between regimes and governments that are uncomfortable reading in modern democracies where we give ourselves too much credit for a benign past. The Bible verse that comes to mind is; let him who is without sin cast the first stone, (paraphrased) – no country has clean hands. Serenade for Nadia has a lot to say about the modern Turkish nation, it’s brutal birth and it’s relationship to its peoples, ramifications of which we can see enacted right now. This broader background theme is a litany of persecution, division and brave resistance, a love story begun during the Third Reich is cut short by the Second World War and the Holocaust. But this is not solely about the Nazis, this novel is about Turkish, Russian and British actions in the Balkans at that time and since, Turkification and the genocide of the Armenians, the murder of Crimean Turks and the tragic sinking of a refugee ship on route to Palestine.

Still the fundamental core of the novel is a passionate love affair, entwined with tales of familial love and deeply felt friendships. This is a chronicle of strong independent women making their way in male dominated closed societies. Serenade for Nadia is an slowly unfolding tale, it takes time with its characters, we get to know them long before we fully come to understand the connections between the past and the present. There are red herrings, intriguing asides and a full and colourful Turkish background. This story packs a punch, it’s heart rending and heart warming, insightful and questioning of Western assumptions of moral superiority, bias and condemnation. The central historical love story of Max and Nadia is the kernel, a love that has not diminished over fifty years, but it’s the tale of Maya in the present that is most thought provoking, she is attracted to the aged Max, to his intelligence, sadness, decency, and mystery. Maya’s story is complicated by her relationship to her son troubled son, Kerim and the boundaries the culture places on her. Kerim is struggling with bullying at school but the story of Max and Nadia’s love will help other and son to reconnect. On her journey Maya discovers a whole history of her country she never knew but also a family story that isn’t the one she grew up with. At times beautiful, almost elegiac, Serenade for Nadia is sentimental, but not cloying, intelligent with enough insight to match it’s heart, it’s an engrossing read.

Maya is taking the flight from Frankfurt to Boston, while other passengers sleep she furiously writes the story of her family, a doomed love affair and one hundred years of history. Maya is thirty-six, Turkish, assumed to be a Muslim woman. She has hopes it will be different in America, to be where people are judged as people not measured by their religion, she has high expectations.

Three weeks earlier (2001); Maya works at the university of Istanbul, she is divorced but has a boyfriend, Tarik, and a son, Kerim. Today her job is to pick up Professor Maximilian Wagner come from America to Istanbul for a lecture. He defies all her assumptions of the unprepared foreigner, he is a tall, elegant looking man carrying a violin and wearing a cashmere scarf and sensible clothes for the time of year. Her job:
“In a sense it was a break from the desperate struggle to survive as a single mother whose deadbeat ex-husband didn’t pay the alimony and child support he was supposed to.”
He surprises her by saying;
“But I know Istanbul. I know what the winters here are like.”

He is visiting Turkey for the first time since 1943. They drive to the Pera Palas, (where King Zog and Shah Riza Pahlevi stayed), he’s glad something of the history remains. This is where The mask of Demetrios was set, Max is happy it still exists. Everything else seems to have changed, even the language is not the same. As Maya leaves professor Max at the hotel she spots the white Renault with three men inside, it has followed them from the airport. Why would the authorities be interested in him?

Kerim is home when she returns, she worried when she found pornography on his computer, his father, her-ex says it’s nothing, just boys being boys. Now she finds this too;
It’s a nail through the heart, but she knows she can’t confront him, he’s at that age where he will clam up. So she tells him about the three men following her and the professor, about being scared and needing his help.

Max he explains that he came to Turkey as an academic in 1939. There were two German camps at the time, the Nazis and the anti-nazi/Jewish community, Gestapo, Russians and British agents were rife in the city. Max mentions the Cicero Affair but she’s never heard of the spy who worked for the British ambassador and was paid £300,000 by the Germans for stealing documents, only to find out that the money was counterfeit. This is all part of a history she doesn’t know but, personally, Wagner is reluctant to say how he came to be here, he is not Jewish and did not arrive as an opponent of the Nazi regime but neither was he a Nazi. Then in 1943 he was expelled from Turkey. The men in the white Renault come to her, they ask her to spy on professor Max, an offer she can’t refuse but it is fraught with danger. She tries to uncover Wagner story, why he is considered a danger to the state but her own safety and patriotism come into question. They will use her sex and sexuality against her.

Max is on a pilgrimage to the past, Maya re-examines the story her grandmother told her about her own parents’ murder. Serenade for Nadia is written with all the passion and energy of a thriller. It’s a musing on the role of women in Turkish society pre-Erdogan. Maya inhabits a world where women from a certain class and background have status but their situation is still edgy, even in academic circles, where they might be seen as loose, immoral, or fair game.

Two things stand out in this novel; the romantic and tragic love story of Max and Nadia but also the troubling story of genocide and dictatorship that is the twentieth century. Very well translated by Brendan Freely.

Paul Burke 4/4*

Serenade for Nadia by Zülfü Livaneli.
9781635420166 Other Press Paperback March 2020