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.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler - For the love of reading

All the novels I have read are for other people. Interesting, challenging, disturbing, motivational, whatever they might be, they are still for other people. I have identified with them, differentiated from them, loved them and hated them, but I was never them. Calvino is the only writer (so far), who writes about me. Puts me in the center of his novel. Actually, he puts you, as well. Yes, you, the passionate reader, for whom reading can easilly be a substitute for breathing. Yes, you, who would prefer a good book over anything everytime, whose eyes are glued on the novel, who derive immense (almost sexual) pleasure from a literary masterpiece. You, me, us, we the readers are the characters of Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.

The novel is structured as 10 chapters in 2nd point-of-view (adressed towards you and me, the readers) alternating with 10 beginnings of different novels. The poor reader starts a novel, only to realize everything but the first chapter is missing. He sets on a journey to discover the rest, driven by his reader passion and restlessness. Unfortunately, he doesn't discover the rest of the novel, but the beginnings of another 9 novels. What a complete torture for any reader. You just started something and you are getting curious about what the rest is going to offer, how is it going to make you feel, what it is going to tell you about the world, and how it is going to change you and BAM, you are deprived of that greatest of all pleasures.

To make things easy for us (the reader) Calvino gives us a female reader. To accompany us in the search, to share our reading obsession, and to put a little love touch, without which every self-respecting novel is just words on a piece of paper. The female reader is the personification of the perfect reader. She immerses herself in the world of books. She reads several novels at a time because neither is enough to satisfy her book hunger. She refuses to meet the authors because their mortal body would only ruin the image she has through their voice in the novels. For her, you the reader, travel the world to find that special book or that special self. And along the way, you (me, us) discover the essence of reading. Calvino looks at it from several possible angles, presenting a different literary form with each of the new beginnings. He attempts to be 10 different authors and to his honor, he succeeds. Whatever the new novel is about, the chapter before that has already hinted to. At first it might seem Calvino just lacked ideas to write a whole story, but if you come to think about it, he is a genius indeed.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is a strange novel. It takes sometime to get accustomed to Calvino's unusual style. I was even annoyed in the beginning, as I felt completely lost, but once I found my place as "the reader" the novel indeed turned into something else. Calvino in this book needs to be experiences with the soul and not with the mind. It is difficult to say what If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is about. However, the most important fact is that it will appeal to everyone for whom the reading world is an unseparable part of the real world.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

1Q84 or the world with two moons

Even before I started 1Q84, I was trembling with a sweet impatience and anticipation. The days, weeks, and months passed, yet I knew somewhere a different world was awaiting me, the world not of 1984 but of 1Q84.

A friend of mine said I would absolutely love 1Q84. Well, if she meant I would actually be staying until 4 o'clock because my hands were glued to the book and my eyes - to the story, she was right.

People's general reactions to Muramaki's novel were two: 1: This is a huge book (yes, Murakami indeed overdid it by writing 900+ pages) and 2: I thought 1984 was written by Orwell. Let me start by the first question and for the first time by something negative. Indeed 1Q84 could have been a lot shorter. Murakami spends a lot of pages repeating and explaining stuff he already said and explained. At points I felt underestimated as if I am this shallow reader, who constantly needs to be reminded about the sequence of events. In his defense, Book 3 was originally published separately from Book 1 and 2 and within nearly a year time span, so I guess it was somewhat necessary. However, when you read Books 1, 2, and 3 one after the other, you sincerely get outraged at this constant repetition.

1Q84 is a play of words as in Japanese 9 and Q are written with the same symbol. 1Q84 is also a reference to Orwell's famous dystopian novel. The characters in the novel find themselves living in a parallel world, a world where two moons co-exist, where the Little People create air chrysalis and speak through it to the receivers, where there are a dohta and a maza. Yes, you wouldn't understand a word I am saying, but explaining it would ruin the whole novel. And as repeated constantly throughout 1Q84: If you don't understand it without an explanation, you wouldn't understand it with an explanation.

The year is 1984 (not for a long time) and the city is Tokyo. Aomame is a 30-years-old woman, who seems to be living quite an ordinary life - she is a fitness instructor by day and a sexually active hunter by night. Only two people know of her secret life - Aomame is a killer. She eliminates men, who abuse women. On the way to her next assignment, Aomame takes a wrong step (or rather a wrong staircase) and the world she believed she lived in changes completely.

Tengo indeed lives an ordinary life. He is a math teacher, who writes novels in his spare time. When his extravagant editor Komatsu suggests that Tengo rewrite the promising novel of a 17-year-old girl, Tengo doesn't suspect that this is going to turn his world upside down. Fuka Eri is a mysterious girl, whose first (and only) novel Air Chrysalis tells THE fantastical story of THE Little People, who affect the world's direction in mysterious ways. At first to Tengo,this story is nothing more than a girl's rich imagination. However, similar to Aomame, he starts noticing weird things around him.

Murakami quite extensively focuses on religious cults. One of them, to which Aomame's parents belong, believes in the destitution of the human body as a way to reach God. Its followers refuse even blood transmission, as it is a unnatural intervention into what God created and destroyed.

The second one is a more mysterious cult. Sagikake looks like a commune, where people disillusioned by capitalist society have retreated to grow their own food and to live in harmony and peace. As Fuka Eri's Air Chrysalis becomes popular, both Tengo and Aomame start feeling that it might be describing events in the cult. And both of them become unnaceptable to Sagikake.

The story in Book 1 and 2 alternates between Aomame and Tengo, but in Book 3 Murakami brings some fresh air and a new perspective in the character of Ushikawa, an investigator hired by Sagikake to track down Tengo and Aomame. His reflections, along with Tengo's and Aomame' help create a clear picture of the changing world and of the role the cult, the Little People, Air Chrysalis and even Tengo and Aomame play in it.

Tengo and Aomame's paths intertwine as they become closer to closer to realizing that they might be in this world just to meet again. They have shared a special bond as children but 1984 doesn't allow them to reunite. Both of them start believing that this special place with two moons exists for them and because of them.

1Q84 is entertaining and obsessing as you scroll through the lines to uncover the mystery of the Air Chrysalis and The Little People and to see Aomame and Tengo reunited. As I reader, I felt I am walking slowly next to them, patiently waiting for that perfect moment to meet.

More on Murakami: South of the Border, West of the Sun

Saturday 1 September 2012

What is your favorite book

Probably one of the most inane questions I've been asked. So when confronted with a stupid question, answer with another question: "In what sense?"
The book I would like to re-read over and over again? The book I've read the most and know by heart? The book, which style I admire? The book that made me think the most? The book that inspired me to do something? The book that I simply couldn't rest and kept reading until my eyes burned? The book I cried to for the first time?

Many definitions to the question of my most favorite book and as many answers, for that matter. Nevertheless, I myself felt inspired to find the answer to that question. Of course, the moment one book popped into my mind, so did several others and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't put one on top. It felt as such an offence for the rest contestants, which made it to the final round. So, instead, I decided to give all of them some credit (my favorite books, that is) and compile a list. So there it is the list of my most favorite books, in categories. Before anyone even opens his or her mouth to say, "You can't say this is the greatest book", yes I can. This is my blog; my opinion and frankly I can even say Harry Potter is a classics, if I wanted to!

1. The greatest love story ever written. Period
Love in the Time of Cholera - Florentino Arisa, Fermina Dasa and Juvenal Urbino show the different faces of love in times of cholera, which are also valid in times of terrorism. You can like someone and spend your life with him being happy, without necessarily feeling extreme passion. This is OK and happens constantly. You can f*ck everything that moves and still love that one person with all of your heart. This is also OK and also happens constantly. You can get together with your true love even after waiting for more than 50 years. OK, this doesn't happen that often but it is still OK. Incredible,in every possible way. Movie is great too and Javier Bardem is too hot to bear. My most favorite quotes is also from that book,a quote that passionately waits for my body and mind to decide where it should be most appropriately tattoed and how to co-exist with my present tattoo:

The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.
Ще ме е яд да умра само заради едно - че няма да е от любов.

2. The best dystopia
1984 is the classics of the classics. Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, and We complement this amazing list but Orwell and his Big Brother most effectively (and rather scarily) describe a near-by future, where those who control the present, control the past, and those who control the past, obviously control the future. Orwell gives a bit of hope to the characters, only to smash it at the end. Big Brother sees everything and there is no way to escape his grasp.

3. The book that inspires me
Gone with the Wind
Scarlett o'Hara is probably the strongest, most admirable and most destructive female character in world literature. She is egocentric, selfish, and self-sufficient, yet she possesses that amazing strength of character and will to survive and to win at any cost. People's opinion doesn't matter to her as long as she is convinced that what she is doing is right. Whenever I feel down/ugly/stupid/irrelevant/invisible/grotesque/funny (and not in the good way) I think of Scarlett, a woman to admire.
After all...tomorrow is another day! Something all of us should be aware of when things start to get rough.

4. My book form
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I love Kundera and his way of showing the absurdity and fatuity of the world we live in, the truth about loving relationships, the difficulty of connecting with others, all of this under the blossom trees of Prague. Can Kundera and I be related because I sometimes feel he would understand better than even my parents would?

5.Who is John Galt?
Atlas Shrugged - Rand's phenomenon is hated by half of the world and adored by the rest. I have never met someone with a middle-ground moderate opinion about it. Which makes me love it even more. I am always suspicious towards anything that the majority of people praise. There must be something wrong with it. As with people, if everyone likes you, most probably no one likes you that much. Atlas Shrugged is controversial, politically challenging, and at points outrageous. But it is still a phenomenon in world literature, it is beautifully written, and Rand's philosophy of the man and his abilities at the centre of the world is absolutely admirable. Hate or love it, everyone must read this book. EVERYONE.

6. The book I know by heart
I have re-read Pride and Prejudice over and over again since I was about 11 and my mum gave it to me as her favorite book. Darcy and Elizabeth's love story is just what the world needs - he is an arrogant rich man and she is a witty young woman, who is the only one not afraid to stand up to him. The origin of modern sugarcoated movies, Pride and Prejudice is humorous, satiric, and more analytical and serious than it might seem on the outside. Austen is rumored to have described her own family and traditions in the book. Her heroine Elizabeth is one of the first controversial female characters, who show to the Victorian society that the woman can actually be smart, educated, and equal to the man.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

The opening sentence of the novel and it is as famous as the novel itself.

These are 6 books that if you haven't read, well YOU HAVEN'T LIVED!