Sasha Marianna Salzmann
Sasha Marianna Salzmann’s debut novel starts by advising, “I don’t know where we’re going.” From there, Beside Myself takes you from Moscow to Berlin to Istanbul on a dizzying trip through time.
Alissa – Ali –leaves Germany in search of her missing twin brother, Anton, with whom she is fiercely close and who left her nothing but a postcard, a black-and-white image of a street lined with rickety buildings stamped with red-and-white letters: Istanbul. Anton and Ali’s Jewish family found themselves as emigrants (“or immigrants depending on how you looked at things”) from Moscow in the early ’90s. As children, the twins learnt to balance defiance with the desire to be accepted. In Turkey, Ali stays with her uncle figure, Cemal, with whom she smokes cigarettes and drinks çay. Cemal prophesies disaster for Istanbul, as civil unrest is spreading across the country like ink on paper.
Ali catches Anton in her own reflection – he looks back at her in hazy nightclub mirrors. In one of these clubs she meets the mysterious Katarina and embarks on a different kind of journey. By the time she returns from the Bosporus, free from the grip of Istanbul, she will be a different version of herself.
Beside Myself spans cultures and genders and languages: Russian, German, Turkish, boys, girls, non-binaries. What does language mean? How do you explain the things for which there are no words? Translated from German , the book is beautifully written despite the darkness of its story and texture. There are a hundred poetic glimpses of worlds inside worlds – pomegranate seeds on peeling tablecloths, the look of grey Soviet apartment blocks, a skeletal oleander on a balcony, Adidas tracksuits rustling in their plastic packaging like autumn leaves.
Beside Myself is both a cool thriller and a meditation on family. It has a lot (too much at times) going on: its perspectives shift and periods change to tell stories of love and identity and sacrifice spanning four generations. It’s a bit like drifting – as the protagonist often does – down a street at night-time that’s filled with cigarette smoke and neon lights. You look at the passers-by, the different characters, and wonder how all their individual lives connect. Like Ali, you don’t know where you’re going, but most of the time you don’t mind.
Text, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "Sasha Marianna Salzmann, Beside Myself ". Subscribe here.