Books: Bugged by the past amid Istanbul’s flights of fancy

The Independent, UK
June 25, 2004


by Alev Adil

The Flea Palace
By Elif Shafak
trans Muge Gocek
MARION BOYARS pounds 9.99 (444pp) pounds 9.99 (free p&p) from 0870
079 8897

Elif Shafak is a young Turkish novelist with a prodigious output: she
is only 33, and The Flea Palace is her fourth novel, with a fifth,
written in English, due later this year. Her literary success and
journalism mark her out as a figurehead of a new generation of
writers, who use literature to reconfigure Turkish identity, and its
relationship to the country’s history.

Shafak was born in France and educated in Spain before returning to
Turkey as a young adult. Thus she has a doubled, and marginalised,
Turkish identity. Perhaps this helps enable her to cast a fresh eye
on modern Turkey, and to celebrate the contradictions and
incoherences that its past has bequeathed to the present. She is free
from many of the modernist literary, and political, orthodoxies that
are part of Kemal Ataturk’s cultural legacy.

Like Georges Perec’s Life: a User’s Manual, The Flea Palace is a
novel constructed around the daily routines of the inhabitants of an
apartment building. Bonbon Palace is a microcosm of contemporary
Istanbul: a city of contrasts and contestations, where both
continents and cultures meet. The old and the new; Orthodox
Christianity, secularism and Islam; the rich and the poor; the East
and West; the ancient and the postmodern – all co-exist in an urban

In a chaotic neighbourhood, on the site of two ancient cemeteries,
one Muslim, the other Armenian, the dilapidated, bug-infested
apartment building is home to a cast of colourful characters. Built
by Pavel Antipov, an aristocratic Russian emigre based in Paris,
Bonbon Palace was a gift for his unstable wife Agripina. This
grandiloquent gesture of reparation for the tragedies the Antipovs
endured during their brief stay in Istanbul in the 1920s failed to
restore Agripina’s sanity. But the block becomes home to many
subsequent tragedies, and comedies too – Shafak’s black humour
ensures the two usually go hand-in-hand.

The weave of disparate narratives about the residents – from Madam
Auntie, the eccentric old lady in the penthouse, down to Musa the
ineffectual caretaker in the basement – has a picaresque charm that
blends the quotidian with a touch of magic realism. This spiral of
stories within stories is organised around a central enigma that
haunts all the residents: a mysterious, intensifying stench of
rubbish, and the attendant plagues of insects that infest the

There are some engaging male inhabitants in Bonbon Palace, including
the twin hairdressers whose salon is a social hub, and the drunken
philosophy lecturer pining for his ex-wife. But the most complex
characters in the novel are women. Despite their strength, they
dissipate their energies in fruitless ways.

Hygiene Tijen makes a compulsive bid to expunge her house of all
bacteria. Nadia, the Russian scientist, carves lamps out of potatoes
to stave off her obsession with her unloving Turkish husband’s
infidelity. The young and beautiful Blue Mistress spends her time
waiting for the olive-oil merchant who keeps her. Jewish Ethel, an
outrageous socialite, expresses her greed for love and life by going
on drunken binges. Female obsession and thwarted desire are at the
heart of the decay that haunts the building – although it is male
indiscretion that leads to the tragic denouement.

Alev Adil’s latest collection of poems is Venus Infers’ (NE Publications)
From: Baghdasarian