Serenade for Nadia: A Novel
- By Zülfü Livaneli; translated by Brendan Freely
- Other Press
- 416 pp.
- Reviewed by D.A. Spruzen
- March 9, 2020
A heartrending story of love and resilience in the face of war’s inhumanity.
When Serenade for Nadia opens in 2001, Maya Duran, an English-speaking former administrator at Istanbul University, is on a flight to Boston. She’s working furiously to complete a story before the plane lands. In it, she describes the events that brought her to this point, interrupted occasionally by the cabin staff and distracted by a fellow passenger’s twitching legs.
Earlier, while Maya was still employed at the university, she’d been instructed to host 87-year-old German-born Maximillian Wagner, now a Harvard professor, who had lived in Turkey and had been a member of Istanbul University’s faculty during the 1940s. She isn’t thrilled. But the reluctant, introverted Maya soon feels an attachment to the charming, erudite Max, who has been invited by the administration to give a speech.
What is it about Max that draws Maya in? Perhaps it’s the deep sorrow she senses in him, which is something she can relate to because of her own failed marriage, her struggle as a single mother, and her harried career.
As Maya grows closer to Max over the course of the visit, she learns a little about his backstory: He is not Jewish, but his late wife, Nadia, was, hence his flight from Germany to Turkey during World War II. Maya learns about the Jewish professors who fled the Nazis, about how they formed the backbone of Istanbul University, how they transformed it.
In time, she will also learn the story of the Struma, a real-life ship carrying Jewish refugees that made tragic history off the coast of Turkey in 1942.
Max insists on visiting a beach shortly after his arrival in Istanbul. Maya watches him from a clifftop on a freezing February afternoon: “There in front of the crashing waves, his black coat flapping in the wind, the professor was playing his violin as he looked out to sea.” He was performing the serenade he had written for Nadia to celebrate their betrothal.
While Maya ruminates over Max’s melancholy nature and his possible connections to the war, she’s asked to spy on him by Turkish intelligence officers. They claim they don’t want the details of Germany’s influence on Turkey during the war coming to light. They make a veiled threat concerning Maya’s grandmother. Maya feigns ignorance but is aware of a family secret that could shatter her public identity if brought into the open.
After Max leaves, a now fully engrossed/borderline obsessed Maya risks her job to find out what it is he couldn’t bring himself to say. Another piece of the puzzle emerges when she accidentally earns the ire of her ambitious brother, an army colonel, for digging deeper into the wartime past.
Why does the government wish to hide the Struma disaster? As a deterrent, her brother tells her of another family secret that may force Maya to confront the parallels between her life and Max’s.
Throughout the novel, Turkish author Zülfü Livaneli (via Brendan Freely’s translations) swings from the present day to the war era and back again without confusion or disturbance. He introduces the reader to a slice of history unfamiliar to many. He also depicts the stereotyping, male chauvinism, and paranoia still bubbling in his country at the turn of the 21st century.
Serenade for Nadia is a war epic as much as it is a love story (two love stories, really: one romantic, one platonic), a literary mystery, a cross-cultural exploration, and a deep meditation on the nature of loss.
But perhaps it succeeds most as an adult Bildungsroman. Maya is 36 at the beginning of the story, but she’s not fully adult until after her encounter with Max. “I owe the deepest changes in me to an elderly man. A man I knew only briefly, with whom I shared neither passion nor sex, nor even a common language or culture.”
Despite the human darkness in which this story is rooted, Serenade for Nadia sings with Maya’s compassion for Max, with Max’s passion for his late wife, and with the resilience of those who suffered so tragically from betrayal and hatred.
D.A. Spruzen earned an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte and teaches writing in Northern Virginia. Her poems and short stories have appeared in many online and print publications. An historical novel, The Blitz Business (Koehler Books), a poetry collection, Long in the Tooth (Finishing Line Press), and other novels are available on Amazon.