A Sore Spot

In the sphere of Turkish literature, Elif Shafak is one of the leading writers of her generation. She has a prolific literary career, having published 19 works, with her most recent work, The Island of Missing Trees released in 2021. Her works have seen great success, both commercially and critically. Her works have been translated into at least 50 languages. For her works, Shafak has also earned several accolades, both in her homeland and from other parts of the world. Without a doubt, Shafak has established her status as one of Turkey’s leading female novelists. While Shafak is more popular for her novels, she is also a prominent activist and political scientist. Vestiges of her activism and political ideologies have been subtly integrated into her novels. This, compounded with her criticisms of her homeland’s growing social concerns, turned Shafak into a controversial figure in her homeland. Several of her works were met with backlash.

One of her novels that was met with heavy backlash was The Bastard of Istanbul. The title was enough to elicit criticism, but it was the sensitive subject the book explored that made it controversial in her native Turkey. The Bastard of Istanbul was Shafak’s sixth novel and just her second written in English. In June 2006, Shafak unexpectedly found herself the center of attention after Kemal Kerinçsiz, a nationalist lawyer, filed complaints against her for the contents of her novel. Kerinçsiz has a history of suing well-known writers who deal with subjects that “insult” Turkey and Turkishness; he previously sued Nobel Laureate in Literature Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s most renowned writer. The global literary community rallied behind the two writers and the cases against them were dropped. It makes one curious about what they have written or said that elicited such radical responses from nationalists.

At the center of The Bastard of Istanbul are two girls and their families. In Istanbul, Asya Kazanci was born to Zeliha, the headstrong youngest member of a family of four sisters. Her mother is a tattoo artist who runs her own parlor. In the absence of the father she never knew nor was her mother willing to identify, Asya was raised in a household populated by women. Her great-grandmother, Petite-Ma was suffering from Alzheimer’s while her grandmother, Gülsüm, was filled with unexplained angst. Added into this interesting mix are Asya’s eccentric aunts. Banu, the eldest of the four sisters, recently discovered that she was a clairvoyant. Cevriye, on the other hand, was widowed and was a high school history teacher. Images of impending disasters filled the mind of the third daughter, Feride.

“Ways of loving from a distance, mating without even touching-Amor platonicus! The ladder of love one is expected to climb higher and higher, elating the Self and the Other. Plato clearly regards any actual physical contact as corrupt and ignoble because he thinks the true goal of Eros is beauty. Is there no beauty in sex? Not according to Plato. He is after `more sublime pursuits.’ But if you ask me, I think Plato’s problem, like those of many others, was that he never got splendidly laid.”

~ Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul

Across the Atlantic, Armanoush “Amy” Tchakhmakhchian found herself constantly being ferried between Tucson, Arizona, and San Francisco, California to fulfill her daughter/granddaughter roles. She had to divide her time between her divorced parents: Rose, an American from Kentucky, and Barsham, the son of Armenian migrants. Rose never got along with her in-laws and was baffled by the tensions that existed between Turks and Armenians. To add insult to the injury, she married a Turkish migrant, Mustafa, who the readers would eventually learn as Asya’s only uncle. He left Turkey almost two decades ago. The circumstances surrounding departure were among the mysteries that will be solved as the story unravels. Meanwhile, Amy, like her mother, was equally perplexed by the anger her grandparents exhibited towards Turks.

Amy knew that her paternal grandparents were among a group of Armenians who fled from Turkey during the 1915 deportation. However, the details were sketchy. She wanted to know where her family’s anger was stemming from. She was curious and she wanted to learn more about her Armenian heritage. Rather than extracting the details from her family, Amy joined an online forum of Armenian-Americans which is dedicated to intellectual issues, including the Armenian genocide. However, there was still a missing connection that she wanted to explore. This drove her to stealthily travel to Istanbul, using the guise of tourism. Through her own cunning, Amy managed to contact her stepfather’s family, who despite their reluctance, took her into their fold. Asya, the only one who can speak English, was assigned as Amy’s tour guide. With not much of an age difference, Asya and Amy inevitably formed a friendship that both would treasure.

On the Essence of History

The Bastard of Istanbul is a multilayered novel that touched base on several subjects. However, it was the novel’s historical contexts that enriched it, with the Armenian genocide being the heart of the novel. During the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians, occupying the eastern portion of Anatolia, earned the ire of the Ottomans. The Ottomans systematically purged the Armenians through a variety of methods such as death marches and even the forced conversion of the predominantly Christian Armenian population to Islam. Massacres of civilians and murders of intellectuals were ubiquitous.

This systematic erasure of a group of people and its culture reached its worst form in 1915 when the Ottoman Turks started arresting and deporting Armenian intellects residing in Istanbul. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians, mostly women, children, elderly and infirm, were forced to march to the Syrian Desert escorted by military men. They were deprived of water and food. Some were subjected to rape or robberies. The unfortunate were massacred. It was an awful landscape. The intricate details of these atrocities were captured by Shafak in her novel. Those who managed to survive the inhumane conditions were able to migrate to other states. At the end of the genocide, roughly 600,000 to 1.5 million perished; estimates vary.

“It is a scientifically known fact that collectivities are capable of manipulating their individual members’ beliefs, thoughts, and even bodily reactions. You keep hearing a certain story over and over again, and the next thing you know you have internalized the narrative. From that moment on it ceases to be someone else’s story. It is not even a story anymore, but reality, your reality!”

~ Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul

The Armenian genocide was, without a doubt, a dark phase of history that has left deep aberrations. For those who have been victims of the genocide, the Turkish government’s continued refusal to acknowledge the atrocities added salt to the wound. They don’t deem it an act of genocide but they view it as a legitimate action. This, however, has not stopped other nations from recognizing these atrocities. As of January 2022, 33 states have officially recognized these events as genocide. The United States is one of the most recent countries to do so after President Joe Biden officially recognized the Armenian genocide in a statement released on April 24, 2021, coinciding with the Armenian Remembrance Day. The Turkish government, however, is not alone in its denial of its actions. Several states across the world have dismissed genocides, such as the Holocaust, as either myths or self-defense mechanisms.

It was this refusal by the Turkish government and Turkish nationalists that was one of the cruxes of the novel. The readers get to understand this sore spot that continues to haunt the victims. What made it work was Shafak’s depiction of the different responses to history. Those who have been victims of the past have the tendency to live unhappy lives for they focus too much on the past. This was summarily captured by this line found in the latter parts of the novel: “Just like the Turks have been in the habit of denying their wrongdoing, the Armenians have been in the habit of savoring the cocoon of victimhood.” Meanwhile, those who have not experienced the atrocities of the past and are generally fine have the tendency to ignore it, especially when it is convenient. For instance, Asya was not aware of the genocide and her attitude projected a dismissal of history as it does not affect her. This view has become prevalent in the contemporary. This opens history and facts to revisionism. Spanish philosopher George Santayana was once quoted saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

On Family-scapes and Cityscapes

History aside, The Bastard of Istanbul covered a myriad of subjects. Family dynamics was a prevalent theme. The Kazancis were an eclectic mix but despite their differences, they were supportive of each other’s endeavors. Strangely, it became increasingly apparent that the Kazanci men are cursed; they die young and unexpectedly. This rationalizes Mustafa’s departure to the United States. At least on the surface. But like any family, the two families featured in the novel have their own dark secrets. The titular “bastard” of Istanbul was but one.

The novel was a mecca for bibliophiles. Shafak’s vast appetite for literature was captured thoroughly in the novel. Armanoush was a bibliophile and several books were mentioned, including John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Milorad Pavić’s Landscape Painted With Tea, Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. There were also mentions of Jorge Luis Borges. It was no surprise coming across allusions to literary figures, such as “Chekhovian personality,” or “likening them to characters from a Fitzgerald novel,” or “she’d make a good Dostoyevski character.” Kundera featured prominently as the cafe that Asya frequented was named after him. It was in Cafe Kundera that cynical political outcasts and intellects converge to philosophize about a variety of things. History was one of their motifs but, unsurprisingly, they know very little of it. In a way, Cafe Kundera was a microcosm of the novel.

“To the one in the skies, this city must look like a scintillating pattern of speckled glows in all directions, like a firecracker going off amid thick darkness. Right now the urban pattern glowing here is in hues of orange, ginger, and ochre. It is a configuration of sparkles, each dot a light lit by someone awake at this hour. From where the Celestial Gaze is situated, from that high above, all these sporadically lit bulbs must seem in perfect harmony, constantly flickering, as if coding a cryptic message to God.”

~ Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul

With Shafak’s rich and descriptive prose, the backdrop came alive. She steered the readers into the backstreets of Istanbul. Every nook and cranny of the cosmopolis echoed with stories and memories. It was a city of contrasts. She has a wonderful way of making Istanbul magically come alive, even to the casual spectator. It was a melting pot of cultures, of people, where the East meets the West. Its mixed influences were vividly captured by Shafak’s prose. This quality of her prose was also demonstrated in her succeeding works such as 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. Istanbul transformed into a distinct character of its own. The smell of food and spices also permeated the air.

History and Literature

The importance of the political agenda at the heart of the novel cannot be denied. We will always struggle moving forward from the wounds of the past if the sins go unacknowledged. The details of the Armenian revolution of 1908, and the Adana massacres provided more context to the story. Shafak’s novel captured it all, and it was breathtaking. The Bastard of Istanbul can double as a primer to contemporary Turkish history and politics. As a work of literature, however, the novel fell short. The execution crumbled under the weight of the ambition. The plot lacked subtlety and it was all over the place. While there were some bright spots, the “big reveal” towards the end of the novel was anything but surprising.

Some of the novel’s elements came across as artificial. Rather than letting the story flow naturally, it felt rushed, forced even. The elements of magical realism were not among the novel’s strongest points. Individually, there were several complex and interesting characters. With the score of female voices, Shafak’s feminism was vividly woven into the novel’s tapestry. However, some of these characters were undermined by stereotypes, making them come off as superficial or flat or both. Mustafa, for instance, was more of an enigma rather than a central figure. The overall execution undermined the novel’s message.

For all its faults and the controversy that overshadowed it, The Bastard of Istanbul is a timely and seminal examination of the intersection of history and politics. Family and memory also converged with Shafak’s storytelling. It was scintillating how Shafak doesn’t hold back when tackling seminal subjects despite the potential of offending a select group of people, nationalists among them. Her depiction of Istanbul, from its contrasts to its lush history, was simply breathtaking. While it was incoherent and lacked focus at times, Shafak’s sixth novel was rife with important discourses that still resonate in the contemporary. Indeed, what is history to us? How should past events affect the contemporary? These are questions worth asking.

“All I know about my past is that something wasn’t right, and I can’t attain that informtation. For me, history starts today, you see? There is no continuity in time. You can’t feel attached to ancestors if you can’t even trace your own father. Maybe I will never be able to learn my father’s name. If I keep thinking about it, I’ll go nuts. So I say to myself, why do you want to unearth the secrets? Don’t you see that the past is a vicious circle? It is a loop. It sucks us in and makes us run like a hamster on a wheel. Then we start to repeat ourselves, again and again.”

~ Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul
Ratings

61%

Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 
17%
Writing (25%) – 
15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

The Bastard of Istanbul was the first Elif Shafak novel that I acquired. I was intrigued by the title despite the fact that I have never heard of Shafak previously nor have I read any of her works. However, I read Shafak’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. It was an interesting novel exploring an equally interesting subject while dealing with Turkey’s contemporary concerns. This was also one of the reasons that made me look forward to The Bastard of Istanbul; I have even listed it on my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. Interestingly, the time I read the novel, US President Joe Biden announced the US’ acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide. This fueled my desire even more, on top of the fact that Shafak was sued by Turkish nationalists for her sixth novel. But imagine my disappointment when the book failed to live up to my expectations. Individually, the novel’s elements were astounding, breathtaking even. However, Shafak’s execution did not make these elements flourish. I felt like the subject was being forced into the reader rather than Shafak letting it flow naturally. The conclusion, how the issue was finally addressed, was also anticlimactic. The ambition was admirable but it never lived up to its expectations. It is not, however, stopping me from reading more of Shafak’s works.

Book Specs

Author: Elif Shafak
Publisher: Viking
Publishing Date: 2007
Number of Pages: 357
Genre: Historical Fiction, Asian Literature

Synopsis

Asya is a nineteen-year-old woman who loves Johnny Cash and the French existentialists. She. Lives in an extended household in Istanbul, where she has been raised, with no father in sight, by her mother, the beautiful and irreverent Zeliha Kazanei, and by Zeliha’s three older sisters: Banu, a devout woman who has rediscovered herself as a clairvoyant; Cevriye, a prim, widowed high school teacher; and Feride, a hypochondriac obsessed with impending disaster. Their one brother, Mustafa, left Turkey many years earlier and now lives in Tucson with an American woman named Rose who has one daughter from a previous marriage to an Armenian man, this daughter, Armanoush, is nineteen and splits her time between Tucson and San Francisco, where her father’s family lives.

As an Armenian living in America, Armanoush feels that part of her identity is missing and that she must make a journey back to the past, to Turkey, in order to start living her life. She secretly flies to Istanbul, finds the Kazanei sisters, and becomes fast friends with Asya. A secret is eventually uncovered that links the two families together and ties them to the 1915 Armenian deportations and massacres.

About the Author

To learn more about Elif Shafak, click here.