The Invisible Harbour | Deniz Utlu | Granta

The Invisible Harbour

Deniz Utlu

Translated by Jackie Smith

I arrive from the opposite direction. Mankind’s ancestors once climbed out of the water. I come from the land. Water is older than the first human being. It comes from the sky. Everything that was here in the beginning travelled here long before from somewhere else. Water enveloped the Earth before there were living beings here. The water itself fell from the stars – as ice, combined with dust. The dust lumped together, the ice thawed. Mist cloaked the Earth as it formed, shielding it from the light of a dying star. Winds howled. The ocean churned. Volcanoes. Asteroid strikes. Until the dust settled, and colours emerged. Colonies of soft green spheres: cyanobacteria. Oxygen. Green algae. Primitive life.

Doesn’t the first point of going ashore also count as a natural harbour? If so, terrestrial life began with a proto-harbour – long before the first man-made port cities, Sidon and Tyre, were established in ancient times by the Phoenicians, whom my father must have been interested in – judging by the illustrated book on The Phoenicians in the Age of Homer, published by Kestner Gesellschaft, that I found in a cupboard in the flat he moved into more than forty years ago. The flat where I grew up and where my mother still lived. Maybe my father haggled for the book at the flea market, or someone had left it out on the street and he had not been able to pass it by. Presumably he was thinking not so much of water at the time, but of stone – of early sculpture, perhaps the image on the front cover rekindled his all but forgotten penchant – never indulged – for archaeology, and ignited a fond feeling as if, all of a sudden, on the corner of Kollenrodstrasse and Jakobistrasse, he were standing in front of the millennia-old houses of Mardin, the city built of stones from the Mesopotamian Plain where he had been born. It may be that my father put the book in the bedroom cupboard straight away, promptly forgot about it and never read it. And so never discovered, either, that the Phoenicians had seafaring stories they had handed down to the Greeks. Stories that made it as far as Homer’s Odyssey and, in time, to the Abbasid dynasty, whose capital city, Baghdad, was said to be the home of Sinbad the Sailor, someone I admired as a child and my father was keen on too. Back in Sinbad’s time, the port of Hamburg – which I wanted to drive to that day – did not yet exist. It was around a hundred years after Baghdad was founded and some two-and-a-half thousand years after the first artificial harbours known to mankind were created, in what is now Lebanon, that medieval merchants built themselves a landing stage at the mouth of the Bille where it meets the Alster in Hamburg’s old town. At any rate that is what I read on the subject before I got into the car, my father at the forefront of my mind, on that winter’s day.

Exactly fifty-nine years to the day after my father first set foot in Germany, I visited the port of Hamburg, the place of his arrival in Germany. From the Reeperbahn I followed the streets down to the St. Pauli piers. The nineteenth century sandstone-coloured passenger terminals with the tall, slender clock tower, the archways and the green domed roofs may, on that day, have reminded my father of a mosque. He definitely did not dock here though as he, so the story goes, did not arrive on a passenger ship. What’s more, he was at death’s door when his ship sailed into the port of Hamburg: he had contracted severe tuberculosis. He sweated and coughed aboard that ship, far from everything he knew. Perhaps he thought of his mother, whom he had left behind in Mardin, how she would be plunged into grief were he to die now. He no doubt kept his eyes closed and lay in the cabin while the other crewmen, up on deck, took in the view of one of Europe’s largest ports.

I only had a short time at the busy crossroads, from where I had a view of the archways and the clock minaret, before the traffic lights turned green and I had to drive on, alongside the Elbe now, which connects this city to the open sea. I kept following the road signs to the ‘HafenCity’, which would not have existed as such fifty-nine years ago and which I’m sure no one called by that name. I crossed a bridge over a narrow part of the river, and soon found myself heading towards parallel lines and cubes. I drove between the parallel lines. The cubes towered up above me to the right and left, and every now and then I caught a glimpse of the shimmering blue water between the cubes. Here, a ship’s mast with sails furled but with numerous ropes popped into view; there, the funnel of a steamship. In some spots the vista opened up to reveal the four saluting cranes on another bank which, with only the slightest stretch, could have touched the clouds. It was a December day; under the winter sun the blue of the water and the white of the ships’ paint and building facades regained their strength. The streets ran in straight rows like the ones you see in a lot of American cities. Tall buildings of metal and glass stood neatly side by side; no cars were parked on the deserted pavements here, in fact there was nowhere to stop whatsoever. It immediately gave the impression that passers-by were positively discouraged from stopping – only those who could afford to stay were invited to do so. For them, there were driveways leading to private car parks. No one else was supposed to be there or even pass by. Seen from the outside it was impossible to tell whether these luxury buildings were constructed here because this is where the harbour was, or if the harbour was here for their benefit – it was no longer possible to distinguish the means from the end.

This wall of exclusivity was interrupted only by a few buildings with industrial red brick facades and the water. And only in these breaches did I recognise a port – meaning it simultaneously existed and did not exist, taking shape only in fragments. For a moment this seemed logical to me, since anyone who embarks on a new life from a harbour quay is risking a fragmented future. As I drove on between the cubes, I was no longer surprised by the thought that futurism, which was meant to enrich the port, was actually making it gradually disappear. Over a hundred years ago, the poet Marinetti proclaimed in his Futurist Manifesto: ‘We shall sing of the pulsating, nightly ardour of arsenals and shipyards, ablaze with their violent electric moons.’ The elevation of capitalism to an aesthetic model, as called for all those years ago, finally seems to have materialised in Hamburg. Had it occurred to the so vocal artists of that time that what they were evoking was an aesthetic of disappearance? That the light of the electric moons would gnaw into the substance of things until all that remained was a bundle of charred wires and a mass of stone and glass, behind which the usual platitudes were uttered and the never-changing soups of different varieties praised? I was reminded of Brecht’s ‘Of Poor B.B.’, the first poem in his first volume of poetry, which he published a decade after the Futurist Manifesto: ‘We have sat, an easy generation / In houses held to be indestructible / (Thus we built those tall boxes on the island of Manhattan / And those thin aerials that amuse the Atlantic swell)’.

In between Marinetti’s Futurism and Brecht’s expression of his inner readiness for the terrible destruction he foresaw (‘In the earthquakes to come, I very much hope / I shall keep my cigar alight, embittered or no’) came the First World War, in which Marinetti – like many other poets of the time – enthusiastically took part, though Brecht was just too young. And what would come after all the destruction? ‘Of those cities will remain what passed through them, the wind! / The house makes glad the eater: he clears it out. / We know that we’re only tenants, provisional ones / And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about’, Brecht’s poem goes on. With all the growth, the wealth, the faster cars, aeroplanes, taller buildings – the Futurist dream that is coming true and ultimately proves Brecht right: what still remains other than the wind that passed through the cities? As if all attempts at expansion amount to nothing more than an extension of the void. And Hamburg’s port, which after all is one of the largest in the world, seemed to bear this out. The more they expanded it and the larger the port grew, the more invisible it became. The deeper I drove into it, the less I was able to see it. I had to train my eyes in an aesthetic that would resist disappearance; the truth now lay only in the gaps; maybe fragments are now the only inextinguishable world. There, the blue of the water – the element with which everything began – shimmers. So the water is still worth talking about. The water and the wind remain. The elements in the gaps have a permanence. Or maybe they tell the story of what once was, what has remained, what can remain.

On a building site between the massive cubes in the last row before the waterfront, the security fence stood open; a worker was smoking outside the open door of a container and watched me suspiciously as I drove onto the site. I lowered the car window and asked him if there was anywhere to park. He said no, this is a building site. I told him I realised that and was looking for somewhere else, also that I wanted to drive to the cranes over there and could he tell me which way to go. I gestured towards the cranes with my hand; he looked at my fingers. He said no, you can’t go this way: this is a building site, it’s private. Could I park elsewhere, I asked. Not here, at any rate, said the man. I gave up and turned around. In the rear view mirror he was pulling the open segment of fence back into place. On my way to the cranes, which stood like spiders in the landscape, I came onto a motorway and stayed on it without really knowing where I was heading, until I saw a wooden sign that said: historic port in fifty metres. I immediately took that exit and pulled over in front of some timber-built warehouses. Standing on a concrete platform was a building with large green doors and transom windows through which the timber beams of the tiled roof were visible. Some of the doors were open and dockworkers were loading up lorries that had backed up to the concrete platform – the historic port was still in use. Through an open doorway I saw how the light was refracted through the transom windows opposite, on the water side, and onto the countless white sacks piled up there, bathing the timber floor and beams in a golden glow. I immediately took a photo, and only afterwards did I notice that I had photographed a forklift truck driver. He got out of his cab and came running over to me. I apologised straight away, said that I had not spotted him. He remained standing over me on the platform, a tall, black-haired man who must have been about my age but seemed to me much older. Not because he looked decrepit or exhausted – on the contrary, he looked strong and sure of himself, with broad shoulders and a steely gaze – but purely because he was a dockworker and I was looking for my father. He said I wasn’t allowed to take photos there, that he hadn’t seen anything this time, but that they would get into trouble for that kind of thing. Something in his manner – the hardness? the warmth? the ‘I didn’t see anything this time’, which might be a Turkish turn of phrase? – told me that maybe his parents too had once come from Turkey to Germany. I apologised once again, but asked all the same whether I could go inside the warehouse. No, no, no, he said, you’re not allowed anywhere. I smiled at him and walked on along the outside of the building. On the other side, rusty grey cranes stuck up in the air. Close-up the cranes looked enormous, though they must have been tiny compared to the metal spiders I had seen from a distance. A sign said: historic port cranes. These must be the cranes my father knew from the time before the invention of containers, which had transformed freight processing and required much larger, more powerful machinery. Besides me, two couples were also looking at the grey cranes, the wooden railcars and the dock railway. An older couple sporting cameras with large lenses screwed on. And a younger couple – the woman was also holding an SLR, and her boyfriend was taking photos on his phone. In between snapping photos they smiled affectionately at each other – I wondered whether they too were looking for a father. The older man and woman were each doing their own thing and not smiling. It was only the conspicuous cameras they had with them that led me to assume they were together.

I strolled along beside the old warehouses, which were numbered in large numerals and were called ‘sheds’. I also passed a ‘general cargo ship’, a freighter from the pre-container era which – as an information board explained – was used to transport rolls of paper and sawn timber as ‘deck cargo’. So this, built in 1958, might have been the type of ship my father had arrived on. Compared with the container ships I observed on the Elbe near the old house where I was staying, this ‘general cargo ship’ seemed small to me, and I imagined it lost on the open sea, exposed to the waves. The sign also said that in 1979 a Turkish shipping company had purchased the freighter and put it into operation on the Mediterranean. My father was already living in Hanover at the time and would meet my mother the following summer. When did my father discover that freight was now, for the most part, shipped in containers? What had gone through his mind at that point? Had he thought to himself that nothing ever stays the same? Perhaps he had not even registered this revolution in shipping, or else he had, but had not connected it with himself in any way – in the same way that a bird that has been reincarnated might not think about the beetle it once was.

I walked on along the edge of the quay. It was not until I looked across to the other bank and noticed a large cargo ship being loaded up that I heard the deep drone of its engines, steady and loud enough for it not to register, in the same way that someone would be unable to recognise a very large object if it were directly in front of them: if they were blindfolded and made to stand in front of a ferry, when they removed the veil from their eyes the world would be a white wall of steel. Only from a distance does the observer understand the object that remained an enigma from close up. It is no different when you have an all-encompassing noise that spreads across the city like a blanket of cloud – the drone of the machinery is so pervasive that it is no longer perceived as an intrusive noise, but as part of the silence. On deck, lorries were piled on top of one another like small parcels; a constant stream of stacking trucks tall as houses drove containers across a ramp from the quay into the belly of the ship.

On my way back to the car, the sun blazed with the last light of day. In the transom windows of the sheds, as I passed them again, a farewell shadow-play was going on among the historic beams, a geometric riot in the spaces between the roof timbers, whose shadows – stretched, shortened or multiplied – were cast across the windowpanes which, in the cold evening, looked like parchment. With every step the sun seemed to glow more intensely behind the sheds, and while on the concrete platforms and between the trucks night gradually fell and the colour drained from everything, the light coming through the parchment transoms exploded in the shadows into the colours of juicy peaches bitten into.

I drove back onto the motorway with the aim of heading further into the port since, after all, I couldn’t tell whether I had already been there or not. From a bridge where I waited at a traffic light I saw the water shining into the night as if it had pickled the moon. Ships were moored to jetties and pontoons, dock vehicles drove back and forth in front of them, and scores of round lights hung in the sky like glaring electric stars. After the bridge I turned off into a cobbled industrial estate, drove past office buildings nowhere near as glitzy as the ones on the other side of HafenCity – buildings from the fifties with crumbling facades, warehouses, again with transom windows, but with blackened panes, yards with rows of containers piled five or six high. Behind the open boot of a battered old car, two workmen were briskly changing their clothes. I drove to the end of the street, where I was able to look out from the quayside at the water and at Hamburg. Enormous waterways passed between the monstrous buildings. Over towards St. Pauli, though, there were also many smaller buildings, older ones among the new, and a few rows behind them St. Michael’s Church lifted its golden clock hands towards the setting sun. It may have been this that my father saw if, rather than keeping his eyes closed, he had gazed into the darkness, knowing – as a man coughing blood – that at any moment it could suck him into itself.

Eventually it was dark and time to go back. On my way out northwards, the land was puffing white smoke into the sky. Cargo ships were berthed in bays of concrete and steel, headlights flooded the gigantic pontoons with yellow light that took on the colour of fire wherever it fell upon the red steel of the mighty machines – those robots that would be able, in a single movement, to plunge their feelers into the bowels of a ship and energetically hurl it across the city, dragging with it all the buildings of HafenCity from here to the Reeperbahn as it finally slowed to a halt in a shower of sparks; but already the next freighter would come flying, decimating whole sections of the harbour: jetties, quays, pontoons. A motorway bridge would sail across the water, buildings and other roads right up into the sky, and the cars on it would neatly heed the call to disappear.

I imagine my father, a skinny lad, disembarking from a ship; he was ill and weak and shaky, but still was carrying a white sack on his back, which he threw on top of other white sacks in the shed. He had been paid his money. The captain raised his hand in farewell, and Father recognised in his face something like the parting affection for a person who means nothing to you, but who out of necessity you have had to spend time with, someone who could soon die. The handful of men with whom he had spent his days at sea and whom he now – finding no other words in his state of complete exhaustion – called ‘friends’ waved to him, wished him all the best. Then Father left the shed and was taken aback by the sudden nightfall on the other side. He climbed down the green metal ladder from the platform and turned back one last time towards a world he had nothing more to do with. He saw the shadow-play, the glow of red and yellow light in the shed’s transom windows, and it seemed to him like a farewell from the sun, whose colours had for weeks caused him to pause, every morning and every evening on the open sea, and think of the haze over the lowland plains of Mardin. He now found the strength to sling his kit bag over his shoulder and set off in search of a railway station or a hospital, those places where new life begins.


Image © Jörg Schubert

Deniz Utlu

Deniz Utlu was born in Hannover in 1983 and studied Economics at the Free University of Berlin and at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. His debut novel Die Ungehaltenen (The Indignant) was published in 2014 and was adapted for the stage at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin in 2015. His second novel, Gegen Morgen (Towards Morning) in 2019 and Vaters Meer (Father’s Ocean) in 2023, both by Suhrkamp Verlag. He is also the author of plays, poetry and essays and conducts research at the German Institute for Human Rights. In 2021 he won the Alfred-Döblin Prize for an extract from Vaters Meer and the Bavarian Book Award 2023 for the published book. Utlu lives in Berlin.

More about the author →

Translated by Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith studied Modern Languages (German and French) at the University of Cambridge. After graduating she worked as a commercial translator, including several years at a German bank, before venturing into book translation. She has translated fiction and non-fiction, and in 2017 was the winner of the Austrian Cultural Forum London Translation Prize. Her translation of Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses, which was her first full-length literary translation, won the Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize 2021, the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, and the TA First Translation Prize, and was longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021 and the National Book Award for Translated Literature. She currently works as a translator at the German Embassy in London.

More about the translator →