January 18, 2013
Hail & Farewell: Jakob Arjouni
by Dennis Johnson
Jakob Arjouni, one of our authors and one of our friends, died in Berlin Thursday, after a long battle against pancreatic cancer. His wife and children — he had two little kids — were with him at the time. Jakob was only 48.
Only 48, but he published nine books, four of which (so far) have been published by Melville House, and all of which were good. He published the first one, Happy Birthday, Turk!, when he was 20 — meaning he wrote it, actually, when he was 19. He might have had a leg up on the rest of us in developing his writerly skill set — his father was a famous playwright, Hans Günter Michelsen — but still.
And indeed, in retrospect he captured something of youth in that first book, something vibrant, that he must have recognized was a thing to hold onto. His first book, see, was a detective novel starring a working-class Turkish immigrant in what he calls the ugliest town in Europe, Frankfurt (Jakob’s hometown) — a guy who takes a world of shit from society and never lets it stop him. In fact, the shitstorm actually inspires him to help others also getting a raw deal. In some ways, it’s classic detective stuff — Jakob was a huge fan of Raymond Chandler, and employed all the tropes of the genre that Chandler basically invented. But the element that was all his own was the bludgeoning reality of the socio-economic boulder he put on his detective’s shoulders. Conservative politics and economic depression and racism weren’t just the circumstances, as in Chandler — they were the things to fight. And so young Jakob created a character doing what young people do: Fighting the bad guys. Fighting the good fight.
But as I say, he kept that spirit in all of his books over the years. Kemal Kayankaya — the star of his four detective novels — complains regularly that he’s becoming jaded, but he never hesitates to crack a joke, throw a right, or run like hell … right at trouble. This, to me, seems like something all writing should do — not grow older and wiser about the self’s best method of retreat unto death, but figure out how to keep and mature that spirit we have when we first feel indignant about injustice to others. I suppose I agree with Blake’s quote about indignation being the voice of God. (Although lucky for us Jakob’s God is a hell of a funny comedian to boot.) And I think Jakob would have agreed with one of my old writing profs, James Alan McPherson, that the novel didn’t really come about until the era of the Magna Carta, when society got serious about having an organized sense of justice — the theory then being that a novel is, essentially, about the pursuit of justice.
Which is one reason I think the novel will live on — because we couldn’t quit that pursuit if we wanted to — and one reason that Jakob will live on — because he responded to the imperative so powerfully — through his work.
In any event, I could go on about Jakob’s other writerly qualities — he had a nice way of avoiding the cartoonish, for example, by giving his characters Simenon-like psychological depth — Jakob was an even bigger fan of Simenon than he was of Chandler — but I’m a publisher and I’ll leave that to the critics. As a publisher, I’ll miss not only his books but his tips. (I once asked him who were the other German-language crime writers I should know about. He said there’s only one worth knowing about: Wolf Haas. Thanks for that, Jakob.)
But beyond that relationship, there’s the fact that what I like best about his work — that never-give-up-fighting-the-good-fight spirit — was also one of his own attributes. He remained a cheerful, friendly, giving and open literary warrior to the end. In fact, when he learned of his illness, he decided to race the clock to finish one last book. And even though he hadn’t written about Kemal Kayankaya for over 20 years, Jakob decided not to put on his fancy literary beret (he could do that too, and did it, in most of his books). Instead, he put on his battered detective’s fedora and made his last book about an aging Turkish-immigrant-detective … who fights the good fight, one last time.
Good bye, Jakob, from all of us, and thank you.
Melville House will publish Jakob Arjouni’s last book, Brother Kemal, in September.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.