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The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak.

July 31, 2013

The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak.  New York : Viking, 2007.

An intriguing novel by a Turkish woman about Turks and Armenians, about forgetting and remembering.

Shafak’s writing is delightful and unique.  This story of hers has a fairy tale quality, just like the tales one of its characters tells.  The people in it are very interesting, but hardly realistic, and the plot depends just a bit too much on coincidence.  Except for the male and female djinns that accompany one of the women, this tale is not fantasy, but it is fanciful.  Such things hardly matter, however because Shafak tells her story so well.  She has a light touch and a wry humor which soften her sometimes less than positive accounts of her characters.

Two families’ stories are at the center of this novel, but these are not the stereotypical nuclear families.  One is a Turkish family that lives in Istanbul and contains a grandmother, mother and four sisters, each of them strong eccentric women.  Men mysteriously die young in the family. The youngest daughter bears a daughter with no father in sight.  In the time of the novel, the daughter, Asya is 19.  The sisters’ only brother has gone to America where he marries a divorced woman with a young daughter, Arminius.   He hasn’t been seen by his family back in Istanbul for 20 years.  His wife’s ex-husband is part of a family of strong Armenian women who insist on being a part of this stepdaughter’s upbringing.  When she is 19, she goes to Istanbul to recapture her Armenian heritage and stays with her stepfather’s Turkish family.  Asya and Arminius become good friends, but slowly old secrets refuse to stay hidden.

The past plays a critical role in this novel whether it is cherished or denied.  As one character observes, Armenians seem to bond together in their hatred of Turks who massacred their people in 1915 while Turks pretend the massacre never happened.

A similar pattern plays out in what the family remembers and forgets in their personal lives.  Both the Turkish and the Armenian families include those who have cut themselves off from their personal past.  Asya lives in a family where denying the past has become an art. She has distanced herself from the past out of fear that it will consume her and destroy any future for her.

My family is a bunch of clean freaks. Brushing away the dirt and dust of the memories!  They always talk about the past, but it is a cleansed version of the past….If something’s nagging you, well, close your eyes, count to ten wish it never happened, and the next thing you know, it never happened, hurray!

And yet “manufactured amnesia” cannot provide permanent safety.

Shafak’s love of the city of Istanbul and its inhabitants is also evident in this book.

Istanbul is a hodgepodge of ten million lives.  It is an open book of ten million scrambled stories. [At dawn] Istanbul is waking up from its perturbed sleep, ready for the chaos of the rush hour.  From now on there are too many prayers to be heard, too many profanities to note, and too many sinners, as well as too many innocents, to keep an eye on.

And Istanbul inspires deep loyalty.

I was born and raised in Istanbul. My family’s history in this city goes back at least five hundred years.  Armenian Istanbulites belong to Istanbul, just like the Turkish, Kurdish, Greek, and Jewish Istanbulites do….I am in love with the chaotic beauty of this city, the ferries, the music, the tales, the sadness, the colours, the black humor.

The people of the city had once succeeded at living harmoniously together, but then they had failed each other and needed to figure out how to do so again without accusations and denials from the past.

I recommend this book to all who like fanciful storytelling and those interested Turks and Armenians and conflicted history.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2013 3:18 pm

    Very interesting review. Do you think Shafak’s style worked better in fiction than in Black Milk? I felt like there were distinct stylistic similarities between the books, reading between the lines of your post.

  2. July 31, 2013 4:23 pm

    Yes, the style was similar and I do think it worked better in this book. There were some dark spots, but she faced them more clearly, I think.

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