Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul

My review of Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul appeared last weekend in the Sunday Telegraph.

If Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, the two best-known Turkish novelists in the English-speaking world, have one virtue in common, it is that both have persistently interrogated their country's self-image, contrasting the narrowness of Turkism with the cosmopolitanism of the old Ottoman empire. Both have gone on trial, too, under an infamous article of the Turkish Penal Code for the crime of "insulting Turkishness". In terms of their viewpoints there is not much to choose between them. Shafak's latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, shows her though to be a more attack-minded and perhaps less sophisticated novelist than her great contemporary.

Shafak's novel drives the distant past into the path of the heedless present through a multi-generational narrative, and it addresses explicitly a controversial episode in Turkish history, the massacre of perhaps a million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915-16. The bastard of Istanbul is Asya Kazanci, the illegitimate child of one of four headstrong sisters who live together as one family - the Kazanci men having an unfortunate habit of dying young. Asya does not know who her father is and has been taught not to bother with trying to find out; she is similarly indifferent to her country's history.

The single living Kazanci man, Asya's uncle Mustapha, has settled in America and married a divorcée of Armenian descent. When Mustapha's step-daughter, Armanoush, arrives suddenly in Istanbul on a search for her family's roots, the Kazanci women are forced to accept the truth that the novel dramatises, which is that "the past is anything but bygone". Thus, Shafak's double-sided narrative demonstrates how the Armenian diaspora and the Turkish people live in different time frames, one community still nursing the wounds of old crimes, the other living in a present that accepts no responsibility for the past.

Yet it could be said that, on balance, Shafak's novel is not all that novelistic. Its characters lack true freedom and interiority and can seem mere symbols or meanings fitted into an overarching structure. Indeed, one suspects that what seems to be a problem with Shafak's theory of character may really have to do with her choice of language. Shafak is that rarity, a bilingual novelist; she began writing novels in Turkish, but this is her second novel in English.

Yet deadly flat sentences such as: 'If her passion for books had been one fundamental reason behind her recurring inability to sustain a standard relationship with the opposite sex...' raise doubts about whether even a novelist as gifted as Shafak possesses the understanding and intuition to successfully dramatise her ideas in two languages.

And an old post: on Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red.

1 comment:

MLB said...

I really enjoyed your piece. Do you know of literary criticism of Shafak's other novels, like The Gaze or The Flea Palace, written in English? Thanks M