Whatever I Can Have, Nothing I Want: On Nazlı Koca’s “The Applicant”

By Kaya GençFebruary 19, 2024

Whatever I Can Have, Nothing I Want: On Nazlı Koca’s “The Applicant”

The Applicant by Nazlı Koca

BEFORE HER DEBUT NOVEL, The Applicant, came out in 2023, Nazlı Koca, a Turkish writer who funded her study in Berlin by working as a hotel cleaner, was little known in the Anglophone world. Neither has she established herself in Turkish literature. This is why much is at stake in this book’s pages: its narrator, like its author, needs a proper visa, a stable income, and a literary future. There is no safe career to return to if the debut flops. These urgencies revitalize Koca’s diaristic text. It is difficult not to root for its protagonist, who frankly confesses to masturbating to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) twice in the course of a summer. I found her tale’s mood akin to Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939), as The Applicant similarly captures with precision the anxieties of an observer who feels that her time in that city is up.

While cleaning hotel rooms, Leyla, the author’s avatar, harbors a sarcastic sense of humor. A diary she keeps while working in an Alice in Wonderland–themed hotel allows us access to her quirky mind. Her narrative begins like a cover letter: “To Whom It May Concern.” A list of qualifications follows: “I obey, I work, I appreciate. I scrub, I vacuum, I mop. I want you so bad I’ll do whatever you ask. I can kill, I can steal, I can take the blame for anything you need.” This character, we understand, lives for money—the title is a tribute to Sylvia Plath’s eponymous poem about a satirical interview between an unmarried man and his ideal bride-to-be. As a Turk on a student visa in Germany, she is doubly marginalized. “I can be your cheap prostitute,” she muses, tongue in cheek. “Will you let me stay, let me stay, let me stay.” The central crux of the diary, which opens on August 15, 2017, is whether she indeed will.

On the sky-blue walls of the hostel Looking Glass, Leyla sees “[d]usty kitsch portraits” of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the Red Queen. Ugly letters furnish one side of a room, spelling out “we’re all med heir.” Her trainer, Ali, is a Turkish graduate student who works three extra jobs—barista, delivery guy, and cleaner—to retain his position as an unpaid university lecturer. Such is life for their ilk.

Koca’s pen portraits from the world of the Berliner precariat feel fresh and authentic. We learn about how cleaners organize their days, how they use apps on Android phones assigned to them, and how they keep unclaimed items left in their rooms. After a backbreaking day, Leyla watches Turkish TV on her laptop at home: Magnificent Century (2011–14) and other shows that reached global fame. She seems to take the advice of her mother: rather than watching the news and worrying about Turkey’s decline into dictatorship, she binges soaps instead. At other times, she gets lost in YouTube wormholes. “It’s exhausting to be alone in Berlin, faking oneself to your family back home and another to the people around you,” she confesses as darkness daily descends.

Koca’s Berlin is not a modernist rip-off. Her characters use Roombas: “Alexa, start cleaning” is a quote from the book. Technology surrounds Leyla, contributing to her sense of isolation. Yet she is different from the listless heroine of Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (2021), whose adventures are also set in Berlin in 2017; unlike Oyler’s social media–addicted, solipsistic protagonist, Leyla deletes her Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts at the beginning of the story, sparing us her OkCupid dates, Twitter death-scrollings, and Instagram stalkings. Leyla cleans social media in a literal sense too. After vacuuming rooms during the day, she works as an online moderator, checking “posts and profiles that were curated by people from our home countries for us to check. Female nipples? Check nudity. Beheading? Check terrorism. Woman with short dark hair, innocent face, big breasts, blue jeans holding a newborn baby and asking who wants to fuck them both?” Check, check, check.

The notebook where Leyla takes refuge is orange and comprised of thick white pages. She finds it under a couch one day. “Maybe this is me now: whatever I find on the floor. Whatever I can have. Nothing I want.” She pledges to write in it every day before adding that she probably won’t. She confesses to being unable to keep a diary for longer than a week: “I was never able to finish anything I started.”


Will Leyla finish her diary? Will she be allowed to stay in Berlin or will she be packed back home? In Turkey, dissidents live in hellish conditions set by the country’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Her fate would be similar to all those surveilled, blacklisted, marginalized, and accused of being nefarious Western collaborators. Still, she has no rationale that would make her eligible for asylum. She refuses to make a case for herself to stay in Berlin as a refugee: “I wouldn’t be able to live here in peace knowing I took the place of a journalist or a trans person whose life is in real danger in their own countries.” She caricatures herself as someone not really a dissident, just living in Berlin “fucking and snorting when the country was going through so much.” She is that, definitely, but also a lot more.

Leyla finds Berlin’s attitude towards Turks suffocating. She is kicked out of her university for writing a thesis that isn’t “academic enough.” Her professor, whom she begs to let her pass because her visa depends on it, simply says: “That is not my problem. If you are not happy with my decision, sue me.” Leyla does sue, appealing for a reevaluation, but has to wait for the court to decide what happens next. In the meantime, she can neither enroll in another program nor start a full-time job. With her certificate expiring in “three months, three weeks, six days, and twelve hours,” the visa situation hangs above her like the sword of Damocles.

But why does Leyla refuse to tell Turkish people in Berlin about her troubles? Because she finds it more difficult to talk about failure in Turkish: “It triples the pain, the shame, the drama of real life to think in that language.” She writes therapeutic essays instead, and recalls being a sought-after reader at bar poetry nights.

Raves, drugs, and sex dominate The Applicant’s middle section. Leyla snorts cocaine wherever she finds it, making out with those who provide it. Having sex while high is hard: “The fever was ersatz, there were no fluids left in our bodies—no spit, no come, no tears.” The prose paces up with the experiences, and one hears the bass and feels the sweat beneath Koca’s fragmented prose: “We all danced, snorted, smoked, drank, and repeated for ten more hours. Occasionally we sat by the out-of-tune piano in the garden and told each other stories about our worlds outside.”

Leyla hustles all the time. And her endgame? Writing a book, perhaps this one. But so much toil lies ahead to get there. She deals with the dirt customers leave for cleaners to pick up “without caring to throw their used condoms into the trash can or at least tip you. Nobody tips the unseen.” There are depressing memories to deal with, not least watching the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 on a computer screen in Berlin.

Leyla is lucky in the friendship department. Her friend Mona visits her every other week with “a bottle of wine, a tube of ketamine, and a bar of Ritter Sport.” She then casually suggests that Leyla seek work as an escort: much less effort, much more income. But “a crushing sense of shame” takes over Leyla as she considers the proposition, a feeling related to “how sex workers are seen in Turkey: worn-out lowlifes.” Refusing to feel ashamed about that, though, she joins Mona on a visit to “Hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson once waved his baby over the balcony,” to meet a man who claims to be a Russian rock star. Mona and Leyla have a threesome with him but don’t touch one another; afterward, she keeps checking if the €500 note she received remains in her purse. “That one note, earned in less than one hour, was enough to pay one month’s rent and utilities. I had next month’s rent covered, I was high on coke, my favorite person was with me. I was content.”

The Applicant brims with vivid vignettes of Berlin: “It was as hot as an August day and all of Berlin had gathered by the lake, topless and drunk. The sun shone on us like we were in Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur, except with people’s pastel outfits replaced by bare skin, cheap beers, and tobacco in their hands instead of flowers.” Elsewhere, Leyla experiences an Isherwoodian epiphany in the subway: “I looked at everyone as if I were a camera and a voice-over commentator. I wrote thoughts into their heads, stories about their lives, anecdotes from their days just by seeing them for a few seconds.” In a room that she cleans, Leyla finds a copy of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2011), but she isn’t interested: “I can’t read about childhood because I can’t bear thinking about my own.” While leaving the book in the lost and found, she wishes she could “leave these uninvited memories in a basket too.”

Then, Leyla begins writing her story about a girl trying to stay in Berlin. Funding that is hard work, yet it provides clarity and foresight. She diagnoses her cleaning work, academic rejection, and visa problems as having a shared root. “For decades, we scrubbed their toilets, worked in their factories, built their classrooms so they could keep their kids segregated from ours,” she admits. “All the while, people who looked like them went to schools, stayed focused, traveled abroad for a taste of the exotic, came back, announced themselves open-minded, progressive. They got their MAs and PhDs.” What about the literary world? “Berlin’s poetry scene sucks,” she tells her friend Aria. “The publishing world is just a couple of rich people pretending to enjoy reading.” After applying for a grant to write a novel about three immigrants in Berlin—a thief, a doctor, and a housewife—she daydreams about the prospect of quitting her job and her studies and using the monthly €2,500 grant. Disappointment awaits: “[T]hey gave it to a journal-published, MFA-holding, successfully employed American man instead.” “How are we,” Leyla wonders, “supposed to get anywhere if the only ones who win grants are those who have won other grants before?”

One night, Leyla hooks up with a “thirty-three-year-old Swedish right-wing conservative tourist” at a bar. She is not initially interested but still opts to do lines of coke with him all night while they have sex. The following day, she retrospectively notices how hot the Swede is. There is a catch, of course: he is recently divorced. “I was less startled by his divorce than I was dazed by my almost-seven-and-twenty years of age, like Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Is that next for me? The divorced? Men with kids?”

Literature comes to the rescue. Leyla does bar readings from the orange diary and grows into a bookworm. She also finds a method to appreciate Ferrante: skipping the first 70 pages of My Brilliant Friend and “reading again from the part where they become teenagers.” She notes how “[i]t’s comforting to read novels narrated from the future selves of their characters.” But The Applicant is a diachronic narrative: unlike Ferrante’s novel, where we know that the narrator survives and writes the text from the wisdom of old age, there is little certainty here that the scribbler of these events in real time will flourish. Even purchasing The Story of a New Name (2012), the sequel to My Brilliant Friend, is a challenge to Leyla, as it costs “more than six bottles of Aldi wine and six weeks’ worth of Aldi potatoes combined.”

When Leyla’s relationship with the Swede blossoms, she remains undecided about its value. After he books a flight to come back to Berlin, Leyla is rattled by his presence, feeling “stuck with these yucky words, II lovvve yyou, these distasteful words, which there’s no use in denying that I feel, even though it makes my life sound like a rom-com.” She struggles against being turned into “a Thérèse Chevalier, a Jeanne Dielman, my mother?” Fighting her middle-class instincts, she reads After Kathy Acker (2017) by Chris Kraus (“the best biography I’d ever read”) and decides that “Acker would have never settled down with a Volvo salesman who wasn’t at least a little bit of a genius and a little dark and twisted in an exciting way.” Yet even Kraus can’t stop Leyla’s zigzags between the certainty of freedom and the luxury of a settled life with the Swede. “Can I finally be a good daughter, sister, wife, citizen in Turkey? Or is this how people give up on themselves? Is this how people die?”

All Leyla wants, at the end of the day, is a room in Kreuzberg where she can watch soaps and “contemplate writing in without having to choose between [her] conscience and asylum.” At her diary’s end, readers have little clarity on where she’ll land. Hopefully, it will be another novel by Koca in which Leyla stars. “Fiction is the only source I can rely on to write a memoir,” Leyla muses at one point, “and apparently calling it nonfiction is the easiest way to publish fiction.” From somewhere out there, I imagine hearing the clicks of a keyboard and seeing Koca toggle between a word processor and a YouTube episode, forging her avatar into a new book, where we find out what happened next.

LARB Contributor

Kaya Genç is the author of three books from Bloomsbury Publishing: The Lion and the Nightingale (2019), Under the Shadow (2016), and An Istanbul Anthology (2015). He has contributed to the world’s leading journals and newspapers, including two front page stories in The New York Times, cover stories in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement, and essays and articles in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The New Statesman, The New Republic, Time, Newsweek, and the London Review of Books. The Atlantic picked Kaya’s writings for the magazine’s “best works of journalism in 2014” list. A critic for Artforum and Art in America, and a contributing editor at Index on Censorship, Kaya gave lectures at venues including the Royal Anthropological Institute, and appeared live on flagship programs including the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC and BBC’s Start the Week. He has been a speaker at Edinburgh, Jaipur, and Ways with Words book festivals, and holds a PhD in English literature. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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