Monday 10 September 2012

The Bastard of Istanbul - Elif Shafak's Forbidden Book

I enjoyed Elif Shafak's Forty Rules of Love as much as I would enjoy a light slightly over positive book about love, gratitude and selfelssness. Yet, it wouldn't make it to my favorite lists and Shafak for sure wouldn't make it to the authors I follow with excitement. I find her rather too obvious, an author whose writing is too much telling rather than showing. Her prose is so understandable without the slightest effort, it is digestable even for the under-average reader, which I find a bit boring.

Nevertheless, when I read that her novel The Bastard of Istanbul was controversial in Turkey and the author herself was sentenced to three years of prison because of an offense towards the Turkish community, I felt there might be something worth it there. I mean, reading a forbidden book (similarly to doing all that forbidden stuff) is exciting itself. It feels as if you are crossing an invisible boundary and even the simple act of reading a forbidden book might be the spice that makes your day unordinary.

In her second novel in English, Shafak confronts and openly critisizes her country's violent past, in relation to the Armenian genocide of 1915. The plot transcends between continents and years focusing on two families - the Kazanci in Istanbul and the Stambulyan in the US. The Kazanci family is a colorful picture of women, who bear bravely the family curse: all Kazanci men die early. Seven women with seven different personalities from three generations try to coexist between the old Istanbul and the new Istanbul. Banu, the oldest sister, is a self proclaimed clairvoyant; Cevriye is a widowed and depressed school teacher; Feride is an obsessed hypochondriac, who comes up with a new sickness and a new hair color every week; and finally my personal favorite, Zeliha is the black sheep of the family. At the age of 19th she gives birth to Asya, the bastard of Istanbul. She wears short skirts and high heels and makes a living as a tattoo artist. The daughter has inherited her mother's rebelious nature. Asya likes Johnny Cash, philosophy, and random sexual affairs. She smokes, drinks, and openly rebels against the absurdity of her family.

On the other side of the world lives Armanoush, trapped between the Armenians and the Turkish. Her parents separated when she was young, mostly due to her father's strong and obsessive Armenian family. Her mother later married to Mustafa, the Kazanci estranged brother and Armanoush found herself in the middle of a battlefield. Desperately looking for her identity, she sets on a journey to Istanbul.

As much as the two girls are different, Asya and Armanoush quickly form a bond, ignorant of the circumstances that actually tie them closer than they can imagine. The two wander around the colorful streets of Istanbul, talking about politics, confrontation, the genocide, the past, and the future. However, the characters Shafak draws are a bit unconvincing. Asya and Armanoush talk more like 40-year-olds than like two teenagers but through their dialogues Shafak brings up the issues she would like her readers to mostly think about.

The family connections in the novel are so complicated that I often found myself stopping for a while trying to figure who was whom. Shafak slowly reveals the puzzle but it takes more than 2/3 of the novel so that things start to slowly make sense. I literally felt I needed a family tree to understand who came from where. Besides that, the novel is entertaining but largely predictable. I knew long before the end what the "terrible secret" would be and I was disappointed to be right.

As for why Shafak was sued, the novel is controversial only in the context of the Turkish extremists. The Armenians are bound by their sufferings in the pasts, wanting the Turks to admit to the "genocide". They feel as victims, a feeling that they pass on generation after generation, and honestly, a feeling that if lost, wouldn't tie them as strongly as a nation. The Turkish are separated: half of them do not admit the genocide ever taking place, and the other half (including the Kazanci family) have heard of it, feel sorry for the Armenians, but do not understand how they can be blamed for any of it.

Overall, a good book but I found most of the characters (excluding Zeliha) utterly unconvincing and I just couldn't connect with them. At points I felt Shafak was inconsistent in her descriptions and I couldn't form a coherent image for almost anyone. On the positive side, she does a good job bringing up a bit of magical realism (which I am a huge fan of). The djins coexist quite naturally with the Kazanci, bringing some fresh air in the rather stagnant novel.