Deniz Ohda’s debut novel Glory (Streulicht), published in August 2020, provides an innovative, original look at German class society and its discontents.
The novel was received by the television network ZDF Aspects Prize for Literature 2020, as well as the Jürgen Ponto Foundation Prize for Literature. Ohde’s work was also shortlisted for a prestigious German literary award, translated into five languages and staged as a play last year. (Sample English translation here.)
Glory it is part of a literary trend that is refocusing on the lives and experiences of workers.
Deniz Ohde, born in Frankfurt am Main in 1988, the daughter of a chemical worker and a Turkish mother, brings the first-person narrator back to her father’s house for a brief visit at the beginning of the novel, which is clearly semi-autobiographical.
Fragmentary memories are evoked in a very immediate, sensual way as soon as she arrives in the area where she grew up. “The air changes when you enter the city.” One can smell the immediate vicinity of the giant chemical industry facility, which German readers will easily recognize as the Höchst industrial park on the site of the former Farbwerke Hoechst AG in Frankfurt.
It is not only the sour smell, constant hum and diffused light that the industrial area (home to dozens of chemical and pharmaceutical companies) casts on its surroundings at night, that leaves its mark on the people who live in the neighborhood. It’s not just repetitive drills for chemical accidents, the vouchers that the industrial park issues to the population when the air is too polluted, or the stench of its waste incineration plant…
Feelings of discrimination and oppression, shame and helplessness erupt with a vengeance. “My face also changes,” the narrator explains, “on the town sign, hardening into the expression my father taught me, the expression of anxious indifference he wears whenever he goes outside—a look that prevents anyone from noticing you.”
Nominally, Ohde narrates a suffocating journey through the institutions of “education” and his failure on the official path of education. But from the very beginning, this experience connects to a picture of contemporary society on a deeper level, which Ohde hints at through rich images that are sometimes poetically picturesque, sometimes fast-paced or enigmatically humorous.
The narrator’s two childhood and then teenage friends, Sophia and Pikka, move effortlessly from grade to grade, but her poor performance prevents her from moving up. The verdict without appeal, “I have to leave this kind of school!”, banishes her from the circle of friends forever. Failure initially leads to shock, breakdown, and depression—but gradually to understanding and confident resistance.
“It was not an identity that was formed, but one that was taken from me,” is her intermediate assessment, a judgment with which many of Ohde’s readers will be familiar, either from their own experiences from youth, or as teachers or helpless parents facing their desperate children when they leave school. In the manner of a puzzle, Ohde divides the fragments and demonstrates the connection between poverty and the so-called lack of education.
The question of identity, “Who am I?” runs throughout the book. Conclusion: “I was not born wrapped in foam, but born in dust, born in soot” – i.e. the fate experienced by millions of working-class children. “Wrapped in foam”—these are those friends from better-off homes and academic circles, as embodied by Sophia’s mother or Pikka’s father, who hold a leadership position in a chemical company.
How the narrator wishes she had a life similar to the life of her friend Sofia! An elegant school bag, blond hair gently pinned with pins, cared for by a mother who not only asks about the school routine, but also pays attention to a balanced, healthy diet for the family. Sophia takes horseback riding and ballet lessons, which her mother considers essential for a “well-rounded education.”
One involuntarily recalls Victor Hugo Les Miserables when Ohde brings to life this typical representative of the complacent upper middle class. “Sofia’s mother quietly came down the stairs. With each step, she pushed her pear-shaped hips forward with a practiced movement, which, despite all their softness, testified to the strength in life: to the volleyball evenings she spent in her early twenties, to the preference for black bread. She wore colorful wool shirts and glasses with red metal rims, two thin bars across the bridge of her nose, no rim around the lenses.”
Her friend’s mother speaks with pride of her short career as a trained clerk, “back at the bank,” someone who knows her job and stands out from the housewives on the street. She organizes her life simply, with a sporty, energetic elan, as evidenced by the well-stocked hygiene and cosmetic items in her bathroom, testifying to a “safe feeling of femininity”. Her neatly enclosed garden paradise, with a white-painted family house in the middle, clean, fragrant, tidy, almost forgetting the proximity of the industrial park.
The house of the narrator’s parents is quite different. In the rented apartment, the smoke and stench of his father’s cigarettes combine with his alcoholic vapors. When he comes home, no one asks: how was school? Instead, she looks at the apartment door for telltale signs: has her father been drinking again? Is he sleeping or is another drunken tantrum on the way? Will he discover his worried mother in the kitchen cleaning up broken glass?
Silence and tiptoeing are part of the means of survival required in a family home marked by poverty, despair and bitterness. At the same time, they correspond to the way of survival needed in the outside world, where she also wants to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Last but not least, she also bears the stigma of her mother’s “Turkish roots” – in the color and density of her hair, in the shape of her eyebrows. As a young woman, the mother left her small native village and her own mother, who beat her. She found herself stuck in the Rhine-Main area without any education or knowledge of the German language. Since then, she struggled, outside the home as a poorly paid cleaner, and at home as an unpaid cleaner and cook for her husband and father-in-law. The teachers treat her daughter as a foreigner, even though she does not speak the mother tongue. Only the daughter’s name, her “secret name”, which the mother uses quietly and only in the apartment and which (apart from the father and two friends) no one else knows, connects her with her mother’s language.
It is the period after the reunification of Germany, the time when neo-Nazi gangs set fire to refugee centers. Her mother, however, does not want to translate the anti-migrant graffiti on the walls of the houses. “You are German, … they don’t think about you”, she tells herself and her daughter after an older classmate racially insulted her and pushed her so hard that she fell and injured herself. The school nurse and class teacher also cover up the incident, calling it an accident. The classmate goes so far as to blame her daughter for the incident: “She is too sensitive” and needs “thicker skin”.
On one occasion, the school assignment included writing about “identity”. After the narrator looks at her blank page in confusion, the teacher tells her that she has a name that suggests she is of Turkish origin.
In its most important aspects, however, its identity is not ethnically but socially determined. Her destiny is shaped not by ethnicity but by class. “Who am I?” he asks himself again later, when despite everything he manages to get his high school diploma through the so-called second educational path and begins his studies. She feels lost among her fellow students, “daughters and sons of households founded in 1968”, who have inherited “the knowledge of proper university behavior” along with their parents’ old “Nuclear power, no thanks” labels.
When he glances at his reflection in the glass door, he realizes that he will never belong to “them”. When in the evening after her student job as a cleaner, overtired and still in work clothes, a foreigner, a worker, helps her at the ticket machine on the platform, she is amazed by the solidarity and friendliness of her peers.
The more she becomes aware of social contrasts, the closer and more understanding she becomes in her relationship with her father, whom Ohde describes very sensitively. Especially with the figure of the father, the author manages to get out of the narrow framework of the educational theme of the novel and develop a narrative about the problems of migrant, working-class origin.
Like her grandfather, who lives on the ground floor of the same house, her father works as a shift worker in an industrial park. Both men are silent. Over the years, both of them become alcoholics, and the father is an inveterate “hoarder”. When the daughter asks her mother why she stays with him despite his outbursts and drunkenness, she replies that he also “had a hard time”. When her mother dies, her father does not want dirt on the grave, but rose petals, and not fir branches, but a spring flower arrangement. He talks to his daughter for the first time about the contemptuous attitude he encountered at school parent meetings.
The author sharply characterizes the father on one of the first pages of the novel. “He worked for the same company for forty years – another highlight of his career. That worker’s pride mixed with defiance and arrogance born of necessity (chin slightly raised, eyelids lowered a few millimeters, shoulders slumped). My father spent forty years immersing aluminum sheet in electrolytes, forty hours a week.”
Intuitively, the author captures the impact of the defeat suffered by a generation of workers whose previous social achievements were undone after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reintroduction of capitalism across Eastern Europe.
After a decade of ideological propaganda announcing the end of the labor movement and the triumph of capitalism, the novel Glory it reflects the beginning of a new development, the return of working-class pride and self-knowledge.
The fact that the father is depicted as a “hoarder” who buys food and cheap goods in abundance (after all, “they were bombed twice”), who refuses to throw away everything rotten and old and refrains from sorting memories of his family and beloved wife – this is not just a whim , as it seems at first glance. Indirectly, this depiction also provides a metaphor for the fact that the working class cannot and will not shake off its history.
The highest recommendation for this novel was the vicious rejection of right-wing critics such as Denis Scheck, who hosts Lesenswert Quartett, a literary discussion program on ARD television. This “woman can’t think,” Scheck raged. Deniz Ohde wanted to blame others for “the reasons for her social failure” instead of “starting with herself.” After all, Scheck rambled, today’s society offers great opportunities for advancement.