Nazlı Koca’s debut novel, The Applicant, is a gut-wrenching story that will make you laugh but also question why and whether you should be laughing at all.
Immigrant and refugee experiences can be surreal and nightmarish, but for those lucky enough to reach their destinations, life can be filled with a sudden Kafkaesque dark humor. Such is the case for Koca’s protagonist, Leyla, a Turkish immigrant in Berlin. After failing out of university, Leyla tries to sue her way back into a student visa, while in the meantime working at an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-themed hotel.
As Leyla navigates Berlin’s nightlife, trying to find some sort of solace, she meets a right-wing Swedish tourist, and suddenly she has an in: She can stay in Germany if she accepts a traditional, conservative life, although it would mean giving up her career in art. Initially this bargain seems better than returning to Turkey to live with her mother and sister, but eventually Leyla begins to question what she is really searching for.
Written in diary form, The Applicant is bound to draw many comparisons to other works (I found it to be like an inversion of the German film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), but the most obvious is to Sylvia Plath’s poem by the same name. Both pieces play with the idea of conformity, and while Plath focuses on the commercialization of femininity, Koca takes a more racialized approach. Leyla experiences subtle racism from almost every character, and through these interactions, we witness the convergence of different ideologies of racial supremacy due to immigration, and how, with the presence of her Swedish lover, white supremacy holds punitive power over all of them. Through the diary format, we get an inside look at Leyla’s forced conformity in what is perhaps a response to the surreal, dehumanizing laundry list Plath wrote decades ago.
Despite these similarities, The Applicant is a truly unique book, particularly in its profound global scope. Leyla meets characters from all over the world who have come to Europe seeking a better life. Her romantic ideals of Berlin shatter early on, and she is left jaded and addicted to drugs, falling into the exact stereotype she idealized artistically. This underscores Koca’s greatest strength: her ability to find the tragedy, irony and humor in the immigrant experience, showing us how global power has warped our ability to find happiness and to even know what happiness is.
This is a powerful book that pinpoints exactly where our contradictions lie. It is so powerful, in fact, that it can do all this while still making you laugh.