Ser­e­nade for Nadia

Zülfü Livaneli, Bren­dan Freely (trans.)

  • Review
By – May 4, 2020

Istan­bul has always been a cul­tur­al cross­roads. Turks and Greeks, Rus­sians and Arme­ni­ans; Chris­tians, Mus­lims, Jews; the Lev­ant, the Balkan, the Euro­pean; the tra­di­tion­al and the mod­ern. In Ser­e­nade for Nadia, Turk­ish writer and activist Zülfü Livaneli paints a vibrant, if not grimy, por­trait of Istan­bul in the win­ter of 2001. Through the smog and traf­fic, his­toric archi­tec­ture and char­ac­ters’ deeply buried mem­o­ries serve as reminders of the city’s com­pli­cat­ed past. Drab mod­ern build­ings have sprung up around the old. The gov­ern­ment and broad­er cul­ture have encour­aged mod­ern Turks to for­get about their fam­i­lies’ often trag­ic and diverse pasts. But his­to­ry — and the pain, under­stand­ing, and love it can bring — is nev­er far from the surface.

This fast-paced, emo­tion­al nov­el is the sto­ry of nar­ra­tor Maya Duran’s dive into his­to­ry: her own, her friends’, and her country’s. The thir­ty-six-year-old sin­gle moth­er works for the uni­ver­si­ty and her job is to man­age vis­its for guest lec­tur­ers. She takes them around town, arranges their sched­ule, and some­times dines with them. Eighty-sev­en-year-old Ger­man-Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor Max Wag­n­er is her lat­est charge and the octogenarian’s vis­it upends her life. Wag­n­er is return­ing to Turkey after a fifty-nine-year absence. Though not Jew­ish him­self, he was one of sev­er­al most­ly Jew­ish Ger­man aca­d­e­mics the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment agreed to host dur­ing World War II, much to Hitler’s chagrin.

For unknown rea­sons, the local police are fol­low­ing him through Istanbul.

Maya and Max imme­di­ate­ly bond. One day, he insists on vis­it­ing a run-down resort town on the Black Sea in the harsh win­ter weath­er. Maya finds him stand­ing on a freez­ing beach play­ing the begin­ning of a haunt­ing song on his vio­lin — a song, she learns, is a ser­e­nade for his wife, Nadia. After nar­row­ly avoid­ing dis­as­ter by expo­sure, Maya becomes deter­mined to under­stand Max’s mys­te­ri­ous past.

Her sleuthing helps her recon­nect with her teenage son, who uses his inter­net savvy to aid in her research. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it also attracts neg­a­tive atten­tion from the author­i­ties, her boss, and her broth­er, who is a high-rank­ing offi­cer in the army. Maya draws on unknown reserves of strength and self-pos­ses­sion to con­tin­ue her jour­ney in the face of fright­en­ing bureaucracy.

Along the way, she dis­cov­ers deeply buried fam­i­ly secrets and learns about the tragedy of the Stru­ma, the 1942 sink­ing of a ship filled with Jew­ish refugees. She comes to under­stand how deeply our iden­ti­ties are tied with the past, even if we don’t know it. There is no gloss­ing over our his­to­ries. For Maya, Max, and the numer­ous oth­er intrigu­ing char­ac­ters in this mov­ing nov­el, the truth will always come out. For Livaneli, that’s the only way any of us can make sense of our lives.

Jessie Szalay’s writ­ing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Aspara­gus, The For­ward, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Trav­el­er, and as a notable in the Best Amer­i­can Essays of 2017. She lives in Salt Lake City where she teach­es writ­ing in a prison edu­ca­tion program.

Discussion Questions