July 3, 2013
Last time I came by train. What struck me immediately, getting out of the station, was the city’s Turkish population, out in force, women wearing head scarves and not looking conspicuous, walking comfortably up and down the pedestrian street.
This time I flew in — for a “Globalizing Literary Genres” conference at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich — and was struck by the same thing. Yes, this is Germany, so “globalizing” means Slovenian and Croatian speakers as well as Indian academics from London. But there’s no question that Turkey is once again front and center, an enabling condition, a nodal point, shared by a fake Armenian autobiography and a Jewish “language memoir.”
This is not Robert Lowell’s city, the city of “A Mad Negro Soldier Confined in Munich.” I’d like to think it’s James Baldwin’s. He was here in 1973, and wrote a poem about it. Coming here now, he would have enjoyed seeing the faces, the comfortable sauntering.
Baldwin first went to Turkey in 1961 with this preface to his host, a young Turkish actor named Engin Cezzar: “Baby I’m broke, I’m sick. I need your help.” Istanbul helped him finish his novel, Another Country, a turning point he carefully dated: “Istanbul, Dec. 10, 1961.” Spending his days in the Gumussuyu neighborhood, he worked on another book, The Fire Next time, and came back again and again whenever he needed help — after the murder of his friend Medgar Evers, after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
The United States wasn’t quite enough on its own, as Germany isn’t. He would have understood that.