I may spend the next few paragraphs regretting not knowing Elif Shafak’s prose earlier. But I won’t. Instead, I will be grateful for the spur of the moment decision back in August to sign up for three book subscription boxes. I got The Bastard of Istanbul from Books That Matter. This kind of gems was exactly what I was hoping and longing for.
With visits to local bookshops curbed either by lockdown or by common sense the odds of randomly, almost magically discovering a new author are slim. I tend to buy what I know or what was recommended to me. Always going into the reading experience with preconceived notions. Before reading this book I heard of Elif Shafak, of course, but I never read anything by her or any review of her other books. Hence a clean slate and openness to the experience were the order of the day.
I’ll start with the only complaint I have. I got the Penguin edition, and I think Penguin is cutting costs to make books accessible to broad audiences. I get that, hey! I applaud that. I have no problem with mediocre, recycled paper, really! But I cannot abide Penguin’s font-size choices. If it was any smaller they should be obliged to include a magnifying glass with the book.
When I started reading I fell instantly in love with Shafak’s prose. Vibrant, meaty, lively, but also joyful, sensuous, light and twisting. Like a living creature. It has been a while since I’ve been seduced by the quality of the prose alone. It was pure joy to read those initial pages about Zeilha’s travel through Istanbul to have an abortion.
The story revolves around two families. Divided by the geographical and cultural distance they are intrinsically bound to one another, even if no one is aware of it. In the Kazanci family, living in Istanbul, men have a weird tendency to die young. Hence the four generations in the household consist of only women. And that may be for the best for their personalities are so big they fill the house to the brim and almost spill over to the surrounding streets.
We have Petite-Ma, the senior of the family, the grandmother, and the great-grandmother. Then we have Gülsüm, mother of four sisters and grandmother of Zeliha’s bastard. Zeliha, Banu, Cevriye, and Feride are the four sisters, completely different from one another, with personalities expertly developed by Shafak. And the younger generation, Asya, Zeliha’s daughter, dark, brooding, aware she’ll never match her mother’s beauty and zest for life.
Then on another side of the Atlantic, we have the Tchakhmakchian family. Armanoush is the youngest of them, a daughter of an American mother and an Armenian father. Her parents separated early in her life as Rose, her mother, could not handle the overbearing Armenian family of her husband. To spite them she proceeded to marry a Turk. Armanoush is being tossed by the waves and tides of her dual identity as an Armenian-American. In the end, she decides to go to the country responsible for the Armenian genocide, the country her family came from, the country they had to flee from to save their life.
She longs for clarity, a connection, an identity that is hers and not one given to her by others. Unlike Asya who longs only for freedom from any boundaries.
The book is a fascinating panorama of Istanbul, a long history of two families, but also a tale of looking for one’s identity and coming to terms with the past, that cannot be changed.
Shafak was one of the first Turkish writers to tackle the topic of the Armenian genocide head-on. For that, she has been prosecuted by the Turkish state. But her voice is the voice of hope, the voice telling us that we cannot change the past, but we equally cannot forget about it, because that is where we come from. However, we also have to forge our own lives and identities, for the past solely cannot be the basis of our future. We need to know if, accept it, remember it, and learn from it, but then we make our own choices.
It is a very humane book, about people failing and trying again, about strong women, and an exceptional city. It is about the grand scheme of things and life’s minutiae. With each chapter anchored in a flavor of a spice or an ingredient that evokes a certain memory or a situation, the book is extremely sensual. All those ingredients combined, come together in the form of ashure, a glorious Turkish desert. Just like all our memories coming together form us.
Shafak wrote this book in English instead of her native Turkish. In the afterword she considers, that possibly it was the distance created by the use of a different language that allowed her to step away from her identity and build the courage to handle the subject of the Armenian genocide.
It has been a few years since I read a novel so complex, broad in its scope, yet so accessible, sensuous and funny.
Selected quotes from The Bastard of Istanbul