Ausser sich by Sasha Marianna Salzmann
Berlin. Suhrkamp Verlag. 2017. 365 pages.
The first sentence of Ausser sich (Beside yourself)—“Ich weiß nicht, wohin es geht, alle anderen wissen es, ich nicht” (I don’t know where we are going; everyone else knows, I don’t)—sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It is the reflection of young Ali on the journey she is undertaking. It later transpires that the family was visiting “home”: her grandparents’ flat in Moscow, which they had left in the early 1990s for Germany to escape anti-Semitism in Russia.
Sasha Marianna Salzmann thoughtfully and cleverly addresses the themes of memory, identity, and migration, asking if language, nationality, or gender are important for our self-definition. Ali, now an adult, is ostensibly looking for her twin brother, Anton, but she is actually seeking her own identity. Her search for her brother becomes a voyage of memory. The author dexterously paints history-drenched snapshots from the lives of three generations in Ali’s family and reveals how, as Jews, they survived such relentless events of twentieth-century Russia as the Second World War, Stalin’s purges, and the fall of communism.
Born in Russia and raised in Germany, the twins feel no attachment to either country and were both able to easily relocate to Turkey. Ali even wonders if she has accidentally immigrated without noticing it. Without her brother, Ali struggles to know who she is, and after meeting Katho, a transgender performer, she begins a course of sex-change medication, which is freely available on the streets of Istanbul. She also asks to be called by her brother’s name. Her transition is not mentioned in the family, and Ali considers talking about it with them as being as absurd as asking her grandparents why socialism failed. In the final chapter, Ali is guided by her friend in Germany over the phone through the backstreets of Istanbul in order to avoid the uprising, cementing her status as an outsider who never fully integrates into the society in which she is living.
Salzmann’s debut novel, Ausser sich, was shortlisted for the 2017 German Book Prize. The English translation rights have been acquired by Text Publishing in Australia, so English-speaking readers can look forward to Salzmann’s at times quirky, at times graphic tale of lost and found.