The Yash Raj of literary fiction
The Bastard of Istanbul
Author: Elif Shafak
Publisher: Penguin Viking
The Bastard of Istanbul is a very serious novel indeed. It deals with nation, state, exile, memory, sexual repression, feminism; this one’s the Yash Raj of literary fiction. Then it gets even more serious. When it was published in Turkey, its author Elif Shafak faced charges of “denigrating Turkish national identity”. At the trial, riot police lined up at the gates armed with plastic shields and wearing gas masks. Shafak was acquitted, but not before she had given birth to a child amidst the drama.
Like with Satanic Verses, public indignation was based less on a close reading of the novel and more on fundamentalist paranoia and excitability. One should be careful here though. The nuisance value of a piece of art does not necessarily imbue it with a corresponding aesthetic value.
This is the story of a family that lives under a curse: all the Kazanci men die in their early 40s. Asya Kazanci lives with her mother, three aunts and her grandmother in Istanbul. Rebellious daughter of a rebellious mother, she listens to death metal and Johnny Cash, smokes the occasional joint, has “many boyfriends, sometimes simultaneously…”
Her mother, the chain-smoking Zeliha, runs a tattoo parlour; “sincere and pure in her blasphemy”, she lived “as an agnostic and she would die as one”. One aunt is a clairvoyant, the other a fastidious schoolteacher. They have a brother, Mustapha, but he’s in Arizona, trying to escape the curse.
He’s married to Rose, who has married him, a Turk, just to spite her first husband, an Armenian. She has a daughter, Armanoush, from her first marriage. Armanoush finds herself “constantly fluctuating between a proud and traumatized Armenian family and a hysterically anti-Armenian mom”.
One day she secretly decides to visit her step-dad’s extended family in Istanbul. Her Armenian-American friends are horrified: the Young Turks deported and massacred over 1.5 million Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.
The dividing lines are still drawn, the wounds are still fresh, nothing has been forgiven. Or forgotten. Asya is the bastard of Istanbul: her mother went for an abortion but screamed and ran out of the clinic while dehumanised “electro-voices” roared over the city “from microphones and cabinet speakers”. An odd but frank friendship develops between the two young women.
Unknown to both of them, there is a dark secret that binds the two, which Zeliha can only reveal when her brother Mustapha is dead. The secret goes back to their youth and the sexual tension between them.
Early on, Shafak lets the academic in her displace the storyteller. Asya and Armanoush are a little too well-read. Literature casts its lumbering shadow on the characters, preventing them from coming into their own. Characters become a mouthpiece for the big ideas: nation, memory, loss.
Instead of pursuing literary truth, the novel becomes an exercise in infotainment, giving lessons in Turkish-Armenian history in palatable doses.
This is a trap academic novelists often fall into. The American short story writer, Leonard Michaels, who was an academic himself, nailed the problem in a March 1961 journal entry: “The professors have a few ideas but no thoughts…. If they didn’t have ideas, they might say things worth saying.”